Teaching Swim Lessons to Infants and Toddlers

A Sample Progression for Child-Centered Swim Lessons

Hispanic mother and son in swimming pool
John Lund/Tiffany Schoepp / Getty Images

Teaching baby or toddler swim lessons can be an invaluable experience. Let's start by answering three frequently asked questions about swim lessons for infants and toddlers.

  • Can a baby or toddler learn to swim? The short answer here is yes.
  • Can an infant or toddler learn freestyle or backstroke? No. A child's motor skills generally aren't ready for complex skills like freestyle and backstroke until age 3 1/2 or 4 years of age.
  • Can you drown proof an infant or toddler? This is a definite no. Even if an infant or toddler has learned basic swimming skills, their performance will be inconsistent. In addition, no baby or toddler should ever be in a situation where they have to save their own life -- period. Constant touch supervision should be provided at all times when an infant or toddler is in or around the water.

Why It's Good to Start Them Young

However, there are some key reasons why swim instruction is beneficial starting from a very young age.

  • Babies and toddlers absolutely can learn to love the water.
  • Babies and toddlers can learn potentially lifesaving skills.
  • Babies and toddlers can develop the prerequisites for more advanced skills so that when they are developmentally ready, the skills will come to them almost naturally.

In addition, there is significant evidence that baby-swimming enhances social, emotional, mental, and physical development. All this, of course, is dependent upon having a qualified instructor who takes a child-centered, child-focused, but progressive approach.

Three Approaches to Child Swim Instruction

In general, there are three types of approaches to teaching babies and toddlers:

  1. Water Acclamation Approach: The emphasis of the instructor is simply to have the child enjoy the water. This is a positive approach, though there tends to be minimal advancement in terms of skill acquisition.
  2. Forceful, Skill-centered Approach: The instructor forces skills on the baby or toddler, with little or no regard given to the child's readiness or happiness. The baby is treated more "like an animal" than a "fragile young human being." The infant/toddler's "well being" is sadly in the hands of someone who claims or even thinks they are doing something good for the baby. There are recent reports that young babies have even drowned during this type of lesson. Be aware of this type of instruction, as it can be both damaging and dangerous for your young child.
  3. Progressive, Child-centered Approach: The instructor teaches swimming and safety skills but they are taught in progressions, and the approach is gentle. The child's happiness is the priority. Infants and toddlers actually learn and develop skills in this format, while the philosophy is to produce a healthy, positive experience first -- learning and skill progressions are second. In other words, the child will learn swimming and safety skills in this setting, but never at the expense of the child's safety or happiness. It's a child-paced, child-focused approach.

It is critical for parents and teachers to understand that the forceful, skill-centered approach creates not only a negative experience, but also it can hinder the child's self-esteem, and often turns young children off to swimming altogether. This approach is also dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Parents and teachers should understand that swimming skills could be learned just the same while using a loving, child-centered approach. The difference is the child is learning at the child's own pace. Think of it from your child's point of view -- as a parent, which approach would you want for them? 

This secret to developing swimming skills and a life-long love affair with the water is taking a gentle, progressive, child-centered approach. And while no child should ever be considered "drown-proof," infants and toddlers under age three can certainly learn to swim distances up to 10 feet with the right opportunities in the right environment.

Sample Progression for Teaching Swim Lessons

Here is a simple outline of swimming progressions in a swim lesson where infants and toddlers can learn swimming skills using a progressive, child-centered approach. First, let's define a couple of terms:

  • Pass Hold: The instructor or parent's right hand is under the right armpit of the child and the left hand under the child's left armpit. The child is beside the adult and facing the same direction.
  • Underwater Swim: This simply means that the face is in the water. The underwater swim is technically a swim at the surface of the water, not underwater, with the face and part of the head immersed. The entire head should not be submerged.

Now, let's review a sample progression for teaching swim lessons to infants and toddlers:

Step 1: Face Above-the-Water Pass
Using a pass hold with the child in a horizontal position, use the start signal: "ready, set, go" and glide the child across the surface of the water to mom or dad, keeping the mouth and nose out of the water. The child is supported the entire time. Step #2 is not implemented until the child has demonstrated he or she is happy with facial immersions, which may be attempted earlier in the lesson.

Step 2: Brief Underwater Pass
Using the pass hold with the child in a horizontal position, give the start signal: "1, 2, 3, breath" and then, providing the infant/toddler is ready, gently immerse his face in the water for about 2 seconds and glide him across the surface to mom or dad. A "pass" means the child is passed from the teacher to the parent or vice versa, and at no time is the child ever not being supported.

Step 3: Underwater Swim
Using the pass hold with the child in a horizontal position, give the start signal: "1, 2, 3, breath" and then, providing the infant or toddler is ready, gently immerse his face in the water and give him a subtle push toward mom or dad. The instructor now has the child do a 3- or 4-second swim at the surface of the water. The face is in the water, but he is not being dunked. The movement is gentle and not deep, and he is at the surface of the water with the face in the water, with some part of the back of the head out of the water.

Step 4: Extended Underwater Swim
The technique is exactly the same as Step #3, but the duration of the underwater swim is extended a second or two. The key to success is that infant-toddler determines how long to extend the swim, not the instructor or parent. The instructor should never increase the duration significantly, in other words, one or two seconds longer than the previous lesson is plenty. The instructor or parent should be looking for signals that it's time to bring the child up. Signs include, but are not limited to, facial expressions, eyes, or an exhalation of air. If the child exhales, bring him up because an inhalation always follows an exhalation. And just as importantly, progress in baby steps so your child is sure to leave the lesson both unharmed and happy.

The author, ThoughtCo.com and its associates, are held harmless against all injury and liability that may result from the use of this article as a teaching aid. This article does not qualify the reader as a professional swim instructor. Any person using the methods described above as a teaching aid takes sole responsibility for the safety and health of the children involved. As with any physical activity, exercise, or instructional program, the participant should seek the advice of a physician.

Updated by Dr. John Mullen