I’m really excited to be working with swim expert Marjan Moosavi from Blue Wave Swim School, SW London, a learn-to-swim expert and baby and toddler specialist, on this swimming advice column. Today 5 parents with children of different ages put their concerns around ‘fear of water’ to Marjan and she shares some brilliant tips and insights to help them.
Talking to Marjan has really helped me to understand swimming from a child’s perspective and to see how important the right teacher is. My family loves swimming, but there have been many times where at least one of us has been close to tears in a leisure centre changing room, until we found the right swim school for us.
Do you recognise any of these fear of water scenarios?
1) My 3yo daughter refuses to get into the pool with her teacher, so we’ve cancelled them for the time being. Nell at Pigeon Pair and Me.
2) How do you encourage a child that is reluctant to get into the swimming pool? Sarah at Boo Roo And Tigger too
3) My five-year old son loves water, loves baths, loves going to the swimming pool but refuses to have swimming lessons! Rachel, Rachel in Real Life
4) My 4yo daughter was a great little swimmer until she changed her teacher and suddenly she screamed all through her lessons and panicked in the deep end. Kara at Chelsea Mamma
5) How can we help encourage our 5yo to not be afraid of getting water on her face? Charlie at PODcast
7 Ways to Help Your Child Overcome Fear Of Water
Over the years, I have frequently come across this type of question.
When swimming lessons don’t work out for a child, some parents despair. Seeing a distressed child every week at swimming lessons may lead to a high drop out rate. Left unaddressed, this problem will only get worse.
Step by step, by introducing and then preparing your child for formal lessons these issues could be addressed. By choosing the right class format and environment for your child, you are more likely to be able to pave the way for a fun and fruitful learn-to-swim journey.
Where Does Fear of the Water Stem from?
Not every child is born a natural swimmer.
A large area of water, very different to the womb, is an unknown environment for a child and it is only human to react with caution to an unknown environment. All humans need to learn how to control their breathing and have the confidence in their own breath control when water covers their airways. Not knowing the technique or not being confident in controlling your breathing means you don’t know what to do when water covers your face and this can cause panic and stress for all, regardless of age.
These simple reasons are behind the negative reactions that some children exhibit when they are in water especially at the beginning.
Children under the age of six don’t always have the vocabulary or communication skills to express themselves fully or explain what goes on in their heads, so to deal with stress they react. Shouting, screaming or making a scene and refusing to get in the water altogether are your child’s way of saying they don’t feel confident with what is happening.
Therefore, it is very important that your child associates water with feeling safe and secure. And these are the steps to tackle it:
1) Use Bath Time to Introduce Your Child to Water
Children need to learn to love the water and enjoy being in it, before they can learn to swim.
As a parent you can do so much to generate positive feelings for your children when they are in the water. For young children, relevant activities could take place at home in bath.
Babies and toddlers love rituals and repetitions. So, every night, use your child’s bath time as an opportunity to introduce them to water. The perfect time to start is as soon as your child can sit up. Before adding any bubble bath or soap, let your child sit in the water and explore the environment with you. Keep the first 10-15 mins of bath time fun, using various bath toys; a plastic watering can, balls, ducks and just play in the water. Sing songs with your child when you do simple activities such as; washing their face, splashing with hands, sprinkling water with a watering can etc.
Even if your child doesn’t immediately warm towards these activities, don’t worry. Build up a ritual and provide the opportunity for your child to play in the water consistently. It is easy to give up too soon when a child doesn’t engage with bath time activities.
Also, go at your child’s pace and without pressurising your child, present him/her with regular opportunities to explore the water slowly and gently with you right next to them.
Over time you’ll notice the difference in your child’s reaction when they get in the water or have water in their face. If your child is over the age of 5, using bath time to carry out simple practices like washing their face or blowing bubbles is an effective way to build water confidence and learning to control breathing.
2) Use Family Swim Times to Introduce Your Child to Swimming Pools
Starting swimming lessons is a big step for many children. So it’s a good idea to familiarise your child with the swimming pool environment before starting formal lessons. Swimming pools have one of the most acoustically challenging environments; water is one of the most efficient reflectors of noise. In addition, there’ll be many people around with whom your child is unfamiliar.
For a young child, the combination of all these factors as well as actually coping with the unusual sensation of being in the water, could be overwhelming.
Swimming doesn’t have to start off with formal lessons. Especially for a timid and shy child, to boost water confidence, nothing works better than fun family swimming and spending “quality time” together in water. Parental presence in the water gives a child a sense of security so the swimming pool would become another safe place that one can play and have fun. So, family trips to the swimming pool and playing in water are great ways to introduce your child to pools.
3) Then Enrol for ‘Parent & Child’ Swim Lessons
Doing ‘Parent & Child’ swimming lessons is great way to get your baby, toddler or pre-schooler introduced to formal swimming lessons. You need to assist your child to make the connection between swimming and having fun in water. When that happens, the chances are he/she’ll want to do it again and again. The format of ‘Parent & Child’ classes do vary from one swim school to another. However, the aim of these classes should be to boost water confidence in young children, improve parents’ skills in handling a child safely and softly in water and create a safe and stimulating environment for a young child to have fun with their peers. Activities in these classes should NOT distress a child.
4) Choose the Format of Swimming Lesson Which Suits Your Child
Between the ages of 3 and 4 is usually the right time for a child to start having lessons in water independently from parents. Private lessons can be of particular benefit for children who are shy or lack water confidence.
In private lessons, the attention of one teacher is purely on one child and teachers have the flexibility to tailor each lesson around one child’s needs. Even confident children learn much faster in private classes. So, some parents who appreciate fast results book individual lessons even for children who are water confident although this is a more expensive option.
Parents know their children better than anyone else. For a water confident child who is more motivated by being around other children, group lessons are a good format. Having fun with peers is a good motivation for many children and some even learn better when they are in a group of children by copying them. And the sight of a group of children learning swimming and having fun simultaneously is enough to put a smile on many parent’s faces too!
5) Choose a Swim School which Is Right for You and Your Child
Before signing up to a new swim school, do your research and consider factors such as the overall mission of the school, its teaching philosophy, size of the classes, and the qualifications and experience of its teachers.
There is no single way to teach swimming and teaching methods vary significantly from one place to another. While word of mouth brings a certain reassurance, be mindful of the fact that what suits your friend’s child may not necessarily be right for your child and vice versa.
Children have diverse personalities, learning styles and interests and this varies again across different age groups. So for example in our classes we use a variety of strategies like ‘learning through play’ to stimulate curiosity and learning to engage children whilst keeping our focus on teaching the techniques correctly.
A swim school which has been established for several years, adopts a comprehensive approach, caters for all age groups and abilities and produces really exciting results is probably the right one to go for,
6) Have a Long Term View and Be Realistic!
Producing results and swimming progress takes time and every child is different. I have seen it in my swim school first-hand that even twins don’t progress at the same rate when it comes to swimming.
If other children look impressive when they swim, you can be fairly sure that those children’s parents have invested time and resources to the process. Swimming requires stamina, coordination and learning technique and it takes time to produce a confident swimmer.
7) Be Consistent with Lessons and Build a Habit
Try to avoid the tendency to just consider swimming in the summer months. For the best outcome, approach learning swimming as a year-round activity for your child and there are many schools to choose from which offer weekly lessons during school-term time. Make a weekly ritual for your child by going to the lessons. Every child loves regularly doing something fun and educational which involves other children.
With swimming, you need to lay the foundation first, which is water confidence and ability to do the basic skills of swimming, to be able to build happy and confident swimmer.
If things go wrong, quitting lessons for a while will not resolve any issues in the long run. It’s possible that the problems will intensify when you try to re-start your child’s swimming as they get older. It’s important to deal with issues as they come up, perhaps change strategy such as opting for private over group lessons if it’s affordable. Remember, it’s through perseverance that progress will prevail.
Thanks so much to Marjan for taking the time to answer these questions and present a really logical series of steps to help overcome a fear of water.
Do you have any questions or problems you would like to put to Marjan or thoughts about swimming or fear of water? Please share them in the comments.
A former competitive swimmer, Marjan founded Blue Wave Swim School in South West London 6 years ago, after leaving her academic post and on her return from the U.S, where she also taught and coached swimming. She’s a Sport Scientist and an enthusiastic swim school operator with M.Sc in Sport Sciences from Brunel University and Post Graduate Certificate in Learning & Teaching from the University of North London. Her writing has appeared in several publications; from local parents’ magazines to elite scientific journals including Journal of Sports Sciences. You can read more about tips for teaching and learning swimming in her blog.
All photos are copyright Marjan Moosavi.