Babies are born with a natural grasp reflex. They grasp and hold on tight to fingers, toys, hair and clothing. By maintaining the grasp reflex and encouraging a strong grip during the swimming lesson, we build strength and independence and teach baby to support their own body weight in the water. Remember the water will provide baby with natural buoyancy and they will not be supporting their entire body weight.
Building strength will be great for children’s swimming skills and beneficial for their general physical development. This strength building will eventually enable them to hold on to the side and ultimately climb out of the pool when they are developmentally ready – a skill which may one day save their life.
We simply start with the baby gripping the adults’ fingers. In this instance, baby is facing their parents so that there can be good eye contact and nice social referencing. During the initial stages, parents can help by clasping babies’ hands between their thumb and index finger. When parents feel the baby grip tight they can lift the index finger so that they baby is holding on independently. Be alert in case baby lets go, particularly if they have not been conditioned to go underwater. Once children have a strong grip they can be bounced gently up and down in the water. As children advance through their swimming lessons and master underwater work, they will even enjoy letting go, submerging underwater and climbing up the parents t-shirt. But with any swimming skill parents must ready the child’s body language and stop if they are showing any signs of discomfort or stress.
As children’s physical strength improves parents can encourage them to hold on to a deck level pool or a pool with higher pool sides. Parents should begin by supporting the baby’s bottom with their knee or hand. Once baby grips the wall they can be allowed to practice on their own for short periods of time. But remember adults must always be within arms reach actively supervising. If baby has been conditioned and is happy going underwater it will not be a concern if they baby lets go and submerges underwater. If this happens, remain calm, gently guide them back onto the pools edge or onto your t-shirt and reassure them that all is well but they must hold on. Do not allow baby to fall underwater if they are not yet comfortable with independent submersions.
As children become stronger and master holding onto the wall we start to build this into a monkey skill along the wall. This is a great safety skill as they children are required to move along the wall hand over hand over hand. Children will require this skill so that they can move around the pool to a suitable exit point at a stair, ledge or ladder.
In the initial stages parents will need to assist these hand movements. Toys placed conveniently at short intervals may be useful to encourage children to move along. As children grow they will master this skill on their own. Parents must always stay in attendance and supervise them at all times. Remember drowning is a silent killer, supervision within arm’s reach is mandatory.
We hope this article has given you some food for thought on why the simple skill of gripping is such a valuable part of the swimming and water safety lesson. If we can encourage children to support their own body weight and eventually teach them to get out of the water independently, we are building an understanding of their capabilities in the water. If the baby becomes “conditioned” to mum or dad picking them up after they strike out on their own, they will not learn their own capabilities. However if they are taught to self recover while under strict adult supervision they will gradually learn what they can and can not do in the water.
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