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Dunking Infants and Babies - Swim Lessons and Dunking

Should Baby Swimmers Or Infant Swimmers Be Dunked During Swim Lessons?

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Mother assisting baby boy (12-15 months) to swim, underwater view
David Trood/Stone/Getty Images
Should baby swimmers or infant swimmers be dunked as part of a swim lesson? This is a common question parents ask about swim lessons for their swimmers. "Dunk" is even a term used by some swimming instructors as part of a learn to swim lesson. Before I answer the question, "should babies be dunked during a swim lesson," let's clarify the meaning of the term dunk. My definition of dunk is to abruptly push a person underwater. Fair enough?

Do you care to be dunked? I can't say I do. So why would a swim teacher or even a parent dunk a helpless infant or toddler? Nervousness? Maybe. Lack of training? Maybe. Ignorance? Maybe. So let's talk about what we can do and what we should do to teach baby swimmers breath holding, breath control, and basic swimming skills.

Five Rules for Baby or Infant Swim Lessons:

  1. 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 babies to love their swim lesson experience. Take your time.

  2. Use Conditioning: Teach the baby what to expect.
    Anytime you are going to pour water over the baby's head or face, first use a start signal, and the same start signal every time. 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. 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!

  3. 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. In our program, that's one dolphin dip. Then two dolphin dips, then three dolphin dips, etc. 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.

  4. 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 scares them. If you think about it-this is really not even logical. Have you ever seen a great freestyler dunking his/her head?

    So what is the technique? Put the infant or toddler in a horizontal position with his/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.

  5. Use Common Sense: Listen to your instincts.
    Let's test your instincts to see if you qualify to be the infant or toddler swim instructor for my baby. Let's assume on the following three test questions you have said the following: "1, 2, 3, breath," and just as you are ready to dip my baby, he or she gives you the following reaction:
    • My baby gets tense with resistance. Do you dip or not?
    • My baby starts to cough. Do you dip or not?
    • My baby starts to whimper or cry. Do you dip or not?

    In these three examples, my baby is obviously not happy. Common sense - don't dip my baby! On the other hand, if my baby is relaxed, putting his or her own head down because he or she is ready to go, or even smiling - common sense tells 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 the infants and toddlers, however, should be one that is loving, gentle, and child-centered.

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