New parents often ask me when they can take their baby swimming. There appears to be a fair amount of worry around the topic as people understandably don’t want their babies to get sick. I have spoken to the baby swimming specialists at Swim Baby around this topic as well as doing my own research and speaking to doctors as well.
Why take a Baby swimming?
Swimming is a natural activity for babies. They have been in the womb surrounded by liquid for the last nine months so often they find it comforting. That doesn’t mean that babies necessarily like bathes however as when a baby is put in a bath, they often feel uncertain and not safe. They are not being held close to your body and so it can be quite a daunting and unnerving feeling for them. However, getting into a bath or a pool with your baby is a very different experience. They feel safe with you holding them and actually really love the feeling of being in the water. Babies have a reflex called the bradycardic response which, “makes babies hold their breath under the water and open their eyes when submerged in water”, says Jeffrey Wagener, a paediatric pulmonologist in Colorado. It's not however, true that babies are born with the ability to swim, though they have reflexes that make it look like they are.
So, when is it safe to take a baby swimming???
One of the most common things parents wonder is whether it is safe to bring their baby to swimming classes before they have had their 6 weeks, 3 or 5 months vaccines? The simple answer is YES. Not only is it safe but the benefits of baby swimming are numerous, not only for a baby but also for parent’s too.
In fact, babies do not need to wait to have any vaccines at all to start swimming. This is the biggest misconception of all when it comes to baby swimming and is based on outdated medical advice.
Historically, babies were encouraged to stay at home away from others until they had received their polio vaccines, as the vaccine used to include a live poliovirus. Although effective at protecting against Polio, this meant you could potentially have a baby who was unvaccinated come in contact with another baby who had recently been given the live poliovirus vaccine and this could result in the baby with the live poliovirus in their system passing Polio onto the unvaccinated baby.
The live poliovirus vaccine is no longer used in New Zealand - like most other developed countries New Zealand now uses the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). Polio has disappeared from New Zealand and most parts of the world as a result of immunisation. The Western Pacific region was declared polio free in 2000.
In addition, ALL other diseases that babies are vaccinated against are not transmitted via water. Other germs and viruses will be killed on contact with a properly operated, maintained and disinfected swimming pool – not even Covid-19 can survive in this environment.
This only instance where we would not automatically encourage a baby to start swimming from birth would be if the child had a medical condition that prevented them to swim or if they were born prematurely. Premature babies may not her have a fully developed immune system and may also feel the cold more than other babies, so we would request parents to check with their doctor first to see if there baby would benefit from baby swimming or need to wait until they were a little older. We can also suggest adaptations to the swimwear needed and the activities which would be beneficial to offer a nurturing environment for any babies with special needs to participate as soon as it was deemed medically safe for them to do so.
Melissa Simpson-Mulholland a registered nurse and HCH programme lead confirms that she still encourages “your child to have their vaccines, however you don’t have to wait for these before starting baby swimming lessons”.
So what should you be aware of?
The other considerations to think about when taking your baby swimming, is to make sure that the swimming pool is at least 32ºC for newborn babies (up to 3 months or 5.2kgs), because they can’t regulate their body temperature until they are a bit older. You can also get some lovely baby wetsuits that although technically they don’t need to wear for hygiene reasons etc, can help keep them warmer and therefore more comfortable in the pool allowing them to enjoy the experience more thoroughly.
Also it may be wise to let your baby’s first experience in the pool be short so they don’t become overwhelmed and are allowed to gently get used to their new surroundings. Remember it is a lot of stimulation for a young baby with different smells, sounds, sensations, temperature etc. Go slowly and give them lots of reassurance as well as acknowledging their feelings so if they are upset hold them close.
Watch, listen and respect your little one in the pool and you’ll have a lovely time while developing water confidence from a young age. The younger you introduce a little one to the water the more confident and comfortable they will feel, which for an Island surrounded by water is not a bad thing. The sooner we can teach our little people to be safe in the water the better.
Ultimately it is up to you when you take your baby swimming for the first time, but be safe in the knowledge that your baby is not going to be at risk. I was lucky enough to be able to experience a term of swimming lessons with the Swim Baby team and I thoroughly enjoyed them as did the little one that I looked after. He became more confident in the water and was even going under the water on his own! Please do not do this unless you are trained or have had experience through a class. The teachers are very knowledgeable and really respect parents and babies alike making them feel safe, secure and nurtured.
For any more information or to answer any of questions about when and how to start swimming with your baby, please check out the FAQ section on their website www.swimbaby.co.nz or contact their experienced team on 0800 SWIM BABY or firstname.lastname@example.org.