Underwater Infant Swim Lessons

Should baby or infant swimmers be dunked during swim lessons?

Portrait of baby swimming underwater in pool
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Should baby swimmers or infant swimmers be dunked as part of a swim lesson, and is it even an effective method of teaching young children how to swim? "Dunk" is an actual term used by some ​swim instructors as part of a learn to swim lesson. To clarify the meaning of the term "dunk", the definition is to abruptly push a person underwater.

It's safe to say that there are very few people who would enjoy or appreciate being dunked underwater. So why would a swim teacher or even a parent dunk a helpless infant or toddler? Nervousness, lack of training, ignorance (or all three) are all potential reasons. Let's talk about what we can and should do to teach baby and toddler swimmers breath holding, breath control, and basic swimming skills.

Five Rules for Baby or Infant Swim Lessons

Use Baby Steps: Be patient and child-centered.
As Fred Rogers from ​"Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" ​used to sing: "I like to take my time/ I mean when I want to do a thing/ I like to take my time to do it right." In other words, be patient and child-centered. If you are too task-oriented, you will likely make the mistake of pushing too hard for skill mastery. This mistake can quickly lead to an upset infant/toddler, taking the enjoyment out of the process. You want your mini students to love their swim lesson experience, so take your time.

Use Conditioning: Teach the baby what to expect.
Anytime you are going to pour water over the baby's head or face, introduce a start signal, and use the same start signal every single lesson. We simply count 1, 2, 3, breath (we take a breath) and then pour the water. If you do this each time, the baby will become conditioned to expect it and this will make first-time facial immersions (the next step) easier. Many times, you will find that the conditioning works so well that babies as young as 12 months old will start voluntarily putting their head down as you begin to say your start signals because they are looking forward to the breath control or breath holding activity.

Use Progressions: Take one step at a time.
If the water poured over the face doesn't bother the baby, go to the next step of the progression -- the dip. Start simple with one dip, then two dips, then three, and so on. The key in the breath control progression is to evaluate each dip as an individual attempt. Young learners in this stage of learning are not always consistent. In other words, the same baby who comfortably and happily does five dips on Tuesday may only be happy to do two or three on Wednesday. Again, your priority must be the baby's happiness and comfort.

Use Technique: Don't dunk the baby!
You can help the infant or toddler with breath control (air exchange) or help guide them through a brief swim with the face in the water -- just don't dunk the baby. That is precisely what will scare them. If you think about it, this is really not even a logical technique. Have you ever seen a great freestyler dunking his/her head?

So what is the best way? Put the infant or toddler in a horizontal position with his or her face out of the water, and then after giving the "1, 2, 3, breath" signal -- softly and gently put the face in the water. Just like in a nice freestyle, the head should be in an "in-line" position with some part of the back of the head out of the water.

Use Common Sense: Listen to your instincts.
So you've utilized the above techniques and are ready to try facial immersions. You give the start signal "1, 2, 3, breath". Your swim student reacts in one of the following three ways:

  • The baby gets tense with resistance. 
  • The baby starts to cough.
  • The baby starts to whimper or cry. 

In each of these examples, the baby is obviously not happy. Clearly, the baby is not ready to be dipped underwater. On the other hand, if the baby is relaxed, putting his or her own head down because he or she is ready to go, or even smiling -- common sense should tell you that it's OK to begin the facial immersion.

Infants and toddlers alike are certainly able and capable of holding their breath, learning breath control, and swimming for short distances. The approach to teaching infants and toddlers, however, should be one that is loving, gentle, and child-centered.