Q: My 18 month old son screams and cries when we get into a pool and doesn’t even overly love baths. What can I do to help him with this?
A: Great question! When in water, children can feel that they have no clear boundaries around them and no solid earth to stand on. Often, they are fearful of falling or sinking to the bottom. For young children and toddlers this can be overwhelming at first. The earlier you can expose a child to the water the better. If a baby can start lessons with a parent in the water holding them, that’s best.
Consider these six tips to help your child overcome their anxiety. Overcoming fear of water can be a gradual process, so encourage your child with praise and by rewarding small steps. Make it fun by singing songs and making each of these steps a game.
STEP 1. Bring the child to the side of the pool and have him touch the water. Have him feel it, splash his hands in it and kick his feet while sitting on the edge. Talk to him about the water rules such as: Never swim without Mom or Dad and never swim alone. Do not use water wings or floatation devices. They give a false sense of security which can cause drowning accidents.
STEP 2: Have him step into the pool and walk around on the top step in a few inches of water. Take a small bucket of water and pour it over his legs, then his arms etc. Have him fill the bucket and pour it over Mom and Dad’s extremities and then on to himself.
STEP 3: Encourage him to sit down in the shallow water. Children can learn to blow bubbles sitting or standing. Just getting a child to get his face close to the water is a giant step.
STEP 4: Children love to retrieve sinking toys out of shallow water. Place the rings on the top step and have your child reach down to pick them up. Gradually place the rings in deeper water (2nd and 3rd steps), encouraging him to bend over to get the toys. The goal is to get him to gradually submerge part of his face while playing the game. This may take a long time but eventually they will retrieve it without worrying about going under the water.
STEP 5: Hold the child at your side on his stomach in a horizontal position with your hands under his armpits. Encourage him to kick and blow bubbles. Slowly move him to his back by placing the back of his head on your shoulder and supporting his back with your chest. Gradually lower down into the water so your child is in a supported back float position resting on your shoulder. Give him a toy to play with or an aqua mirror to look at while you sing songs and play word games in the back float position. Many children feel vulnerable and insecure on their backs, so move from front to back to help his nervous system orientate to this new environment.
STEP 6: Enroll your child in swim lessons. Professional swimming lessons with certified instructors are the best tool for helping a child overcome his or her fear of water.
Lana Whitehead is the founder of SWIMkids USA in Mesa. For more information, visit swimkidsaz.com.