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Ask Dr. Sears: Too Young For the Pool?

Q.  I am an active swimmer and pool-lover. My baby is one-month-old and I want to start him in the pool as early as I can. At what age is it safe to introduce kids to the swimming pool?

A. Swimming is one of the healthiest forms of exercise. It tones muscles, relaxes the mind and is friendly to exercising joints. Most babies have a natural love of water. After all, your baby enjoyed his own "swimming pool" for nine months. Consider these three stages in raising a little water baby:

Help your baby enjoy the water

In the early months you should encourage your baby to get comfortable in water and have fun with it. Start getting him used to water by taking baths together. Let him play with a washcloth, splash around, and enjoy floaty toys. Trickle water over his forehead and face to acquaint him with the feel of running water. Let him snuggle against your chest while reclining in the tub. Martha even used to nurse while taking a bath. She'd relax and the baby sort of half-floated attached to the breast. Obviously, the water in these baths shouldn't have soap (or use a gentle, tear-free soap). You want your baby's first impressions of water to be: "It feels good and it's fun to play in!"

Help your baby trust water

A daily bath or shower together will also allow you to model trust of the water. If you like and trust water, he's likely to trust it. Exposure to water should be like feeding schedules: small and frequent. Once baby is comfortable with water in the shower and tub, it's time to graduate from to the pool. You can usually enter this stage between one and two months of age. Early exposure lessens the later fear of water. The other day I enjoyed holding our seven-week-old granddaughter, Ashton, for a short dip in our swimming pool.

Help your baby be comfortable and safe

For enjoyment and safety's sake, always heed these pool precautions:

  • The pool should be slightly warmed. The tinier the baby, the warmer should be the water. Babies have a large surface area relative to their body weight, so it's easy for them to get cold. If the temperature is comfortable for you from the moment you enter the water, it's likely to be comfortable for baby. Limit the amount of time your baby spends in a cold poolespecially when you first start out. You might look into finding a heated pool or spa for baby's first pool exposure.
  • Avoid pools loaded with chemicals. Pool chemicals are necessary to keep the bacteria count of the water down, but overexposure can be unhealthful to baby. Baby's skin, eyes and breathing passages are more sensitive to chlorine than are adults. If you walk into the poolroom and immediately smell chlorine, assume it's too strong for baby. Try to avoid heavily chlorinated indoor pools. Seek out pools that use the newer ozone filtersthese are becoming more common in spas and pools. Ozone-filtered water is clean and very baby-friendly.
  • You must take sensible precautions to protect the pool from babies doing what comes naturallyhaving a bowel movement in the pool. Use "swim diapers" specifically designed for going in water. Check and clean the diaper area before entering the pool. And it's best not to take baby into a pool immediately after a feeding when a BM is most likely.
  • Discourage water swallowing, not only for safety's sake, but in rare circumstances older babies can swallow too much water, which can be harmful to their body's chemistry. Pool water is for swimming, not drinking.
  • The buoyancy of water brings out freedom of movement. Hold your baby securely underneath the arms and let him enjoy the sensation of movement in lessened gravity. Some tiny babies sense it's fun to move in water. In our experience, the combination of water exercise and water relaxation often sets baby up to enjoy a nap after pool time.
As Your Child Grows Older

Around six months of age, consider enrolling your baby into swimming lessons. There are qualified instructors and infant swim classes in many cities. Usually by nine months, babies can be taught to "swim" between two adults for about five seconds. As with daycare or preschool, it's important not to just hand your baby off to a caring instructor. Rather, think of yourself as co-instructor and participate in the lessons. You are the person who helped your baby trust water, so he is likely to feel more secure with you in the pool. Infant swim instructors usually find that babies who are introduced to water early in the first year take to it better.

Because you love water so much, you will naturally convey your own love, enjoyment and respect for water. Enjoy!

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