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Commentary: Here’s why parents should invest in infant swimming lessons

It is important that we prioritise infant swimming lessons as a life skill and resource for children from a young age, says Jan Lin Lee.

SAN FRANCISO: As a sports documentary filmmaker, I am always on the lookout for compelling personal stories of athletes that will enrich our outlook on life.

Often, these are inspiring stories of overcoming adversity, even in tragedies. 

That was not until I came across a tragic story of decorated American winter Olympian Bode Miller in 2019. It impacted me in a different way than I had ever known in my 12 years working in the sports industry.

I was four months pregnant with my first-born when I came across Miller’s drowning prevention campaign in the summer of 2019. 

A year earlier, Miller lost his 19-month-old daughter to a drowning accident when she had reportedly slipped out on her own to their neighbour’s swimming pool.

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The tragedy propelled Miller to campaign for awareness on the risks of drowning. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, drowning is actually a top cause of death for one-to-four-year-olds. Following the tragedy of his daughter, Miller started his six-month old son on swimming lessons with a focus on self-rescue.

It did not matter to the first-time mom in me there is possibly zero chance that at six months little, my infant who’d barely be able to sit up on her own, will be able to rescue herself in the waters. 

I did however remember from my own childhood that I wished I had started swimming lessons earlier.

READ: Commentary: Swimming deaths – how to build children’s independence without compromising safety?

THE MYTH: LEARN TO SWIM EARLY TO COMPETE?

Growing up in a HDB estate in Singapore, perhaps because there wasn’t a swimming pool I had access to, my parents never felt compelled to enrol me in swimming classes until I was 10. And, quite possibly, it was to determine if there was potential in me to become the next Joscelin Yeo.

Before there was Joseph Schooling’s Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal, the 1993 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games held in Singapore had turned Joscelin Yeo into a national sensation with her nine gold medals. Within a year or so, my mother took my brother and I to our first swimming class at Queenstown Swimming Complex.

“You have goals to want to win a medal, but at the end of the day, it’s not the only thing that matters and you walk away. I gave it everything I had," says Joscelin Yeo. (Photo: Facebook / Joscelin Yeo-Purcell)

To her dismay, we were no flying fish! However, I did become a strong swimmer, even if not fast. It is a skill I relished to this day, and I remember the confidence it gave me. I vividly remember how insecure I had felt swimming with a float when we would head to the water theme parks as a family in my early childhood in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fast-forward three decades later, swimming pools are more accessible to children than ever. Yet, until I learned of Miller’s tragic story, it did not occur to me to prioritise infant swim lessons as a life skill and resource for my child in the first year of her life on earth. No one had told me about it.

READ: Commentary: Jo Schooling, a hunted man on a quest for gold and so much more

Swimming had still existed in my head as a later childhood activity but more for nurturing competitive talent than a resource.

INFANT SWIM LESSONS: AN UNDERRATED BABY RESOURCE

Sleep training is almost always the top infant resource. And as Asians, it may be considered bad parenting to not be prioritising brain enrichment activities.

“Give your baby the best head start in life”, as they say.

Then, I had my baby in the middle of a global pandemic.

My husband and I were pretty much living on our own for the entire first year as new parents.

It was survival 101. Out of the window went any “head start” baby activities. The priority was to keep our heads sane. 

Like many, physical activities had been vital for us and for the baby. While I am clearly not able to say I know what went through my infant’s head, but how well she sleeps may be a clue.

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We started her “swimming” in our bathtub at three months, and transited into our apartment’s pool at five months, beginning infant swim lessons at seven months.

At seven months, my baby was just able to roll over both sides, still a “humpty dumpty” sitter, and hadn’t even started crawling. So swimming was not an activity that helped her to hit her developmental milestones early, or gave her a “head start” in physical development. Her milestones were barely on time.

The swim instructor showing the author's husband and child submerging techniques. [Photo: Jan Lin Lee]

Swimming did help her to understand how to actively assert all of her body all day and a boldness to explore her surroundings on land, even as uncoordinated as she may be. 

It tired her out physically, and she’d then enjoy long day naps and bedtime. In this way, swimming may have helped “sleep train” her to our surprise.

The correlation between physical activity and good sleep is well researched in adults. What swimming lessons did for her, too, is developing that keener sense of spatial awareness – she is noticeably unafraid of big new environments or strangers, and has an independence to overcome obstacles and to solo play.

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While water play is a big part of infant swimming lessons, what differentiates an infant playing in the water versus lessons is in the latter, they do learn to deal with challenging situations like being submerged under water and not panic.

In the first year, it is first grasping awareness that water can be dangerous. By 18-24 months, to roll on their back and float, and to climb out of a pool.

Even so, it’s a long-term journey for a child to become a strong swimmer in a crisis. Infant swimming lessons should thus never replace the need for close supervision of your child near any pools of water, or the need to be mindful in ensuring bathtubs are fully drained if you have little children at your home. 

To alleviate any concerns, do consult your pediatrician ahead of taking your baby to swimming lessons.

SURPRISE FIND: A DADDY-AND-BABY BONDING ACTIVITY

I had documented my child’s “swimming” journey on social media, and I was surprised to receive many positive responses from fellow parents who had been skeptical or unaware of infant swimming classes. In fact, many swimming schools in America offer free classes for babies between three- to five-months-old.

Most kids love splashing around in the water. (Photo: Pexels)

My husband was a slight skeptic of infant swimming lessons as well. As a Korean-American, his swimming pursuit was very similar to mine where it wasn’t as much about early childhood survival, than it was for competition. 

It did not take long for him to embrace it however when he found himself enjoying taking our baby to swimming classes every week.

Infant swimming classes were traditionally a “mummy-and-me” activity in the US. Ours is a weekend class for 30 minutes. So perhaps the most surprising of all, it was to discover the parent of the other babies in my daughter’s “Tadpole” beginner class are also fathers - and who ace in the Hokey Pokey water dance with babies.

READ: Commentary: Is it wrong for new parents to have negative thoughts?

For us, it was a co-parenting effort and arrangement so that my husband gets to spend a meaningful weekend bonding activity with our baby, while I get to have a break or precious time with myself.

It is said, “Time is free, but it’s priceless.”

This takes on a new meaning with parenting - may it be time spent with our children when they are little, or time for yourself to self-care, it is just as meaningful.

After over a decade working in sports media across the world, Jan Lin Lee is currently a film producer based in California, USA. She documents her child’s swimming journey on instagram @fivetwosix.

Source: CNA/ml

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