“Babies are perfect to learn to swim before the age of 2,” recommends Pauline Sugine, a retired master teacher of movement in the fields of dance, athletics, swimming, and physical therapy.  “After the age of 2 they start objecting to putting water in their face.  Before the age of 2 they just take to the water beautifully.  Babies are beautiful swimmers.  They glide like crazy!”  Sugine taught infants to swim for ten summers between 1957 and 1967 alongside the famous Los Angeles swim instructor for babies, Jen Loven.  Loven developed a specialized technique for teaching babies to swim, after overcoming her own fear of the water and a near-drowning experience.  Loven taught many babies of celebrities, received referrals from doctors, and was sought after by the movie industry who filmed newsreels of her amazing young students.  This week, I sat down with Sugine in her Los Angeles home to understand the benefits of swimming for babies.

Why are babies “perfect” to learn to swim?

Because their reflexes at this age keep their eyes open under water and prevent them from swallowing water (usually).  They have also been in a water environment in the womb, so it is familiar to them.  They also are quite buoyant in the water because they have so much air between the cells, so generally they float easily.

Why is it important babies learn to swim?

To be water safe.  A baby can drown in only a few inches of water, and it can happen fast. No kid ever left our school with out being water safe.  Far too many accidents happen related to water.  People do not understand how easy it is for a baby to drown.  In some states such as California, there are a lot of swimming pools and a lot of open water.

What does “water safe” mean?

When in the water, the baby can get to a place where they can be safe, such as a step or the side of a pool.

What was unique and effective about Jen Loven’s technique?

She kept the pool heated to 90 degrees.  There were great big steps in the pool which allowed for a very gradual immersion into the water.  The babies would start by playing and crawling on the steps to just get comfortable in the water.  We had lots and lots of toys.  Each day began by carrying out these giant laundry baskets full of toys, and at the end of the day they had to all be retrieved from the bottom of the pool.  Her technique was primarily about making the babies comfortable, just like the Feldenkrais Method.  We spent a lot of time just holding the babies in the water.  Eventually we would teach them to blow bubbles.  Jen never flattened the babies out in the water where they were parallel to the floor, but taught the babies in a vertical position or just slightly inclined.  Jen developed a rhythmic way of breathing:  “1, 2, 3, 4, 5″ counts in the water and “6, 7, 8″ out of the water.  Exhale slowly and inhale quickly.  She did not teach the babies to hold their breath.  The rhythmic breathing was the most important part of her technique.  And she would use these tiny fins on the baby.  They were only about six inches long, and were custom made for her students by a man in Florida.  She would put the fins on the baby and it would help propel them through the water.  Eventually she would take one fin off, and later the second fin came off.  For graduation, a baby would swim the length of the pool down the middle.

How long were the infant swimming lessons?

Thirty minutes long, and the babies needed to rest a lot during that time.

What is your answer to “When can I take my baby swimming?”

It is best before the age of two, and seek professional instruction. Jen would start with them as young as 5 weeks.  From Getty Images you can see an underwater photo of Jen with her granddaughter Julie Sheldon, 9 weeks old, swimming next to her.  “The youngest swimmer in the world ” appeared in Life Magazine.

Do babies enjoy these lessons?

Babies love the water!  They also receive a lot of praise, “Good girl!  She swam the length of the pool twice today!”  Babies move beautifully and rhythmically in the water way before they can on land.  They just don’t meet milestones that fast on land as they do in the water.

Why did the movie industry film her young students?

The swimming pool had these underwater viewing windows, which were great for filming.  When they were barely toddlers, they would dress them in clothes and shoes and they would jump into the pool, take off their clothes and swim away.  That is how skilled they were.

Do you recommend teaching your baby to swim at home or by seeking private swimming lessons?

Private instruction is preferred, unless you live in a remote location where it is not available.  Many people teach their babies the wrong things at home, such as holding your breath.  That never gives a good result.  What happens if there is an accident in open water?  You can’t hold your breath that long.  Rhythmic breathing works much better.  Another tremendous advantage to private instruction is that you get your kid used to being handled by someone else.  You don’t want to be the only one that can teach your child to do something.  Also, you get a more objective view from a professional.  A parent may think their child is doing something great, and the professional may see  otherwise, or a parent may think they are not doing well at all, and the professional may point out what they are doing extremely well.

What would you look for in a swim school for babies?

Look for individual instruction.  Pay the school a visit and see how happy the babies are.  Are there a lot of toys?  Are they playing a lot? Is the water warm?  Does she look really happy?

The day after I finished interviewing Sugine about babies and swimming, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal regarding a new anti-obesity campaign in Britain aimed at children under 5 and babies.  The article began, “Babies should spend less time watching TV and swim more, according to new health guidelines issued by the British government.”  Yet another reason why babies benefit from swimming!

2 Responses to CAN BABIES SWIM ?

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