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Baby Swimming Lessons

6 to 18 months

Your child can:

  • Explore the water and start to feel comfortable in it.
  • Do very basic kicking and pulling movements.
  • Start to master floating and gliding, blowing bubbles, changing directions, and getting in and out of the water (all with help).

Fun ways to learn:

  • Get in the water first and then give your baby some kind of cue that you're going to bring him in with you.
  • Whether it's "one, two, three, four" or "ready, set, go," use the same phrase every time.
  • Sing songs ("Row, Row, Row Your Boat," say) while you teach your child new skills, like floating on his back or kicking his feet. Pairing a melody with movement will help him remember what to do.

Keep in mind:

  • Another way to explore the water together is to take a swim class. A good time to start: when your baby's 6 months old, says Connie Harvey, aquatics expert at the American Red Cross. You'll learn how to handle him in the water and build a foundation for swimming.
  • Classes should have no more than 10 to 15 pairs.
  • Don't forget swim diapers for your baby.

18 months to 3 years

Your child can:

  • Continue to build on the skills he'll need to swim, like basic arm motions and kicking.
  • Get in and out of the water by himself using the stairs (when he's closer to 3).
  • Learn to dunk his head and hold his breath.
  • Jump in next to you.

Fun ways to learn:

  • To practice submerging, your child can reach down to retrieve plastic rings or toys in the baby pool's shallow end.
  • Toss a floating toy in the water and have your child reach for it and pull it toward him. "This teaches the basic arm motions for learning to paddle," says Beth Meyer, associate aquatics director at the Downtown Berkeley YMCA, in Berkeley, California.
  • To move around in the water, he can pretend he's a train chugging along the side of the pool: Have him scoot his hands along the edge.

Keep in mind:

  • Any class you take should still be together  -- formal swim lessons can come later.
  • Though your toddler's now more independent in the water, stay within arm's reach at all times.
  • Remember swim diapers!

3 to 5 years

Your child can:

  • Learn to float on his front and back.
  • Roll from one side to the other.
  • Use his arms and legs to propel himself forward and tread water.

Fun ways to learn:

  • Follow the Leader can help your child practice skills like blowing bubbles and kicking.
  • Ask your child to pretend he's an animal, and to move like a dolphin, a snake, or a kangaroo.
  • Play Red Light, Green Light (your child hangs on to the edge and kicks when you say "green light") to work on swimming and listening skills.

Keep in mind:

  • If you want your child to take swim lessons, this is the age when he can go solo, whether he's been in classes with you before or not. Talk about it ahead of time to prepare him.
  • Select a class that has no more than six children per instructor.
  • Don't let him run near the pool; teach him not to go near it unless an adult is supervising.

5 and up

Your child can:

  • Put together all the pieces (arm and leg movements, breathing) to begin learning actual swim strokes.
  • Jump and learn to dive into the pool.
  • Work on floating and gliding skills.

Fun ways to learn:

  • Fill colored plastic eggs with pennies, then have your child swim down to retrieve them.
  • To practice her gliding, she can blast off like a rocket ship from the side of the pool.
  • Encourage those underwater somersaults: They're good preparation for learning flip turns.

Keep in mind:

  • Looking for a class? The best size is no more than six kids per teacher.
  • Go over the pool safety rules with your child each time you go there.

Water-safety essentials

Taking swim lessons isn't enough to "drownproof" your child. What to do:

At the pool

Make sure a lifeguard is on duty, but stay close enough to your child so you could grab him at a moment's notice.

At the beach

Obey lifeguard warnings and signs. Swim with kids, keeping on the deeper side of them.

At home

Don't allow your child to swim unless an adult is present and watching closely, and surround your pool with a secure fence that's at least four feet high.

What about water toys?

"Treat them as toys, not safety devices," says Connie Harvey of the Red Cross.

Before you sign up for a class

Make sure the instructor has been trained and certified, and then observe a class to see that:

  • The instructor is enthusiastic, while setting clear rules.
  • Each child gets plenty of water time and one-on-one instruction.
  • The instructor is patient, so kids can learn at their own pace.
  • The kids are having fun!