How to Teach a Toddler to Swim

By Jillian Downer
Teach a Toddler to Swim

Drowning and near-drowning cases are the leading cause of death in children, so teaching your child to swim is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. Learning how to swim should be as fun as it is necessary; but while some children are natural water babies, others will fight you every step of the way. The key to teaching your child to swim is eliminating his fear, which is helped by introducing water at a young age. By using the reflexes your child was born with, following important safety rules and guiding him through a step-by-step program, you can teach your child to swim at a very young age.

Start slowly. Infants can be introduced to water (outside of the bathtub) as early as 3 months, and the earlier your introduce them, the better. An infant is born with many natural responses that protect him from water injuries, including the amphibian, laryngeal and dive reflexes. Many of these reflexes fade away between the ages of 6 to 9 months, so you should introduce a child to water before that.

Take a mommy-and-me class. Private swim schools and your local YMCA will offer an array of swim courses for children. If your child is under 2 years old, you will likely be able to take the course together, which will help you learn the appropriate skills to teach your child and what you can expect at her age. Make sure to follow your instructor's advice so you don’t inadvertently harm your child.

Use your child's natural reflexes. A child under 9 months old has two important reflexes that protect him in water and can be used to help him swim. The amphibian reflex is the involuntary movement of the limbs that, in water, can be mistaken for kicking. When your child flails in the water, praise him for “kicking,” using the term so that he begins to associate the involuntary movement with kicking. Eventually, the reflex will fade, and he’ll begin to kick voluntarily. The laryngeal or gag reflex is the automatic closure of the epiglottis when a child is submerged in water. This will protect him from taking in water when you dunk him under.

Stay in the shallow area and around the steps. A child will always feel more comfortable when she can touch the bottom of the pool. The fear of sinking is the leading cause of swim-lesson disasters, so if you can show your child that she can put her feet down and stand with her head above water, she'll be more comfortable in attempting to swim.

Learn to blow bubbles in the bathtub. Start by having your child blow bubbles out of your cupped hands, eventually lowering your hands into the tub so that she is blowing out of a larger plain of water. Then gradually remove your hands altogether. Once your child is comfortable lying on her belly and blowing bubbles by herself, it is time to try it in the pool.

Get his ears wet. Children who are learning to swim hate getting their ears wet. The sound and feeling are foreign to them, so you need to make your child comfortable. The best way to teach him the feeling of submerged ears is by having him place each ear in the water while he sits on the steps. Tell him to listen to the fish and show him how you do it with your own ears.

Submerge the child's face. Once she's comfortable blowing bubbles with her nose and mouth in the water, it is time to practice submerging her entire face. Start by letting her try it on her own while in the bathtub or sitting on the pool steps. But if she struggles or just won’t do it, you can help her. Cradle her, stomach down, placing your left hand on her stomach so that your forearm is cradling her upper abdomen and chest. Her body should be parallel to the bottom of the pool. Gently place your right hand on the back of her head, and on the count of three, guide her through the water, submerging her face for three seconds and counting out loud so that she can hear you.

Submerge his whole head. Once a child is comfortable blowing bubbles, while placing his ears in the water and fully submerging his face, it’s time to fully submerge his head. This can be very scary for children who are new to swimming, and you should never take this fear lightly. Remind him to blow bubbles the entire time he is under the water. Slowly sway him back and forth, counting to three. On the count of three, dunk him by swaying his body sideways and down in one direction, while spinning about 180 degrees. This movement submerges his body at an angle and helps the water flow sideways across his face instead of straight up his nose. If your child screams or fights you, try going under with him.

Learn to kick. Learning to kick can begin in your bathtub at home. Have your child lie on her belly and splash with her legs. In a pool, you can have her mimic the same position on the steps, resting her upper body on the step and extending her legs in the water. You can also have your child hold onto your hands and kick, moving her all around the pool as she splashes her legs. Make sure she is kicking up and down and not side-to-side or scissor-like. Her legs should be parallel to the pool bottom and not perpendicular.

Kick and blow bubbles. Once your child has mastered kicking and blowing bubbles separately, it is time to combine these two skills. With your hands in his armpits, slowly glide him around the pool as he kicks. Count to three and have him blow bubbles with his nose and mouth submerged for three seconds. After he is comfortable with that, have him move on to blowing bubbles with his face fully submerged.

Have the child swim to you on her own. Tell her to stand on the steps, and move away from her about 2 feet. Have her put her arms over her head, face in the water, and push off the step and kick toward you. When she gets to you, scoop her up and give her a big hug while you praise her.

Teach your child to float on his back. This is one of the most difficult things to do, especially once he can sit up. Turn him so that his back is to your belly, place your hand on his forehead and lower his head onto your shoulder. With your other hand under the small of his back, gently lower his head and raise his stomach until he is floating on his back with his ears under the water. You can help ease his fear by whispering or singing in his ear.

Teach safety skills. A child must learn important self-rescue techniques in case of an emergency, such as if she falls into the pool or off the steps. A new swimmer should be able to crawl, using her hands, along the wall in order to get to the steps or a ladder where she can safely climb out. You will also need to teach her how to push off the bottom of the pool in order to shoot herself far enough out of the water so that she can get a breath of air. As her swimming skills progress, so too should her safety skills. Eventually, your young swimmer should know how to dive into the water and turn immediately onto her back, and she should also be able to tread water for at least one minute.

Continue his progress. Once your child is comfortable with these basic techniques, he can move onto more advanced skills, like moving his arms, the seated dive, using a kickboard and kicking while on he is on his back.

Things Needed

  • Pool
  • Bathtub
  • Bathing suit (for your child)
  • Bathing suit (for you)
  • Swim school or YMCA
  • Parent-and-child swim class
  • Patience

Tip

Getting your child comfortable with the water should begin at a very early age. Once he has a little experience, he should be placed in an appropriate swim course. Don’t give up. Learning to swim is an important and lifesaving skill and should not be taken lightly. Don’t expect too much. While your infant or toddler can learn how to swim in the sense that she can move in water on her own accord, many children are not be able to swim actual strokes until they are much older. If you’re struggling and your child is fighting, it may be better to enroll him in lessons. Being around other kids, with an instructor who is not you, may push him in just the right way. When your child blows through her mouth, she is subconsciously blocking her nostrils, which will help to keep water from shooting up her nose when she goes under.

Warning

If you have never taught swim lessons or aren’t familiar with the correct swimming forms, do not try to teach your child strokes. If swimming strokes are taught incorrectly at a young age, it is very difficult to break these incorrect habits in the future. Even good swimmers are not drown-proof. Never leave your child unattended around open water, no matter how good of a swimmer he may be.

About the Author

Based in New York, Jillian Downer has been writing travel, fashion, and active lifestyle articles since 2004. Her work has appeared in "Travel + Leisure," "Outside Magazine," "Women's Health," "Footwear News," and "US News & World Report." Downer holds a Master of Arts in comparative literature from New York University.