No one is born afraid of the water. Fear of the water is taught. We pick it up from the different queues of the people around us and the experiences that we have with water.
Sometimes a fear of water is actually just a lack of experience or interaction with the water, and so it's actually just a fear of the unknown.
One thing we always tell our parents in our Parent-and-Me classes is that the attitudes and beliefs about the water come from their experiences at home.
1. Don't Protect Your Child's Face in the Bath
These attitudes and beliefs about the water really start in the bathtub. It's important to send the message to your child that it's okay to have water in your face.
Often parents will buy those big styrofoam or plastic visors at Target for $20 that are designed to keep the water from getting in their child's face during bath time. We certainly don't want soap in their eyes or face, but once the soap is out of the way, parents need to start playfully drizzling or pouring water over their child's face during bath time.
This can be done with a sprinkle cup like you can find at the dollar store, Walmart, or Target, but if you don't want to buy one, you can make one at home with a plastic cup or small bowl with drilled holes in the bottom.
It's great to teach them a queue as well, like we do in swim lessons. Just to give them a warning and let them know the water is coming. "Ready, go" is all that's necessary.
You can also allow your child to splash in the tub. Yes, you don't want them splashing in the tub because it makes a mess. It gets water all over the floor, and that's annoying. But, if you can come up with a way that allows your child to splash during bath time, even for a couple moments, it will get water in their face, and that will help promote a healthy relationship with the water.
2. Don't Be Afraid of the Water Yourself
If one of the parents is fearful of water, the child is going to pick up on that any time they are near water with them. We don't always notice it, but when we're afraid, we tense up, we have a tighter grip, our words become very pursed and short, and our body language says so much more than our words.
If a parent is overreacting or showing fear near the water with their child, then regardless of the words that come out of their mouth, the child is going to be afraid too by association.
It's really important for fearful parents to get themselves into swim lessons first or join their child in lessons, so they can work on their own attitudes and beliefs about the water.
3. Don't Only Go to Swim Lessons
For a lot of kids that come to us, the only interaction they have in the water is during lessons, and no matter how playful we make those lessons, it's still work, and it can still be mentally exhausting for them.
They need twice as much time to play in the water as they get in lessons. So, if they are getting 30 minutes of lesson time, they really need one hour extra in the water just to play. Even if that means that giving them extra time in the bathtub or even a wading pool in the backyard to play around and build a relationship with the water.
It's important for the child to build a relationship with the water, and if the only terms of that relationship are to work, then it becomes very one-sided, and they will not want to be in the water anymore.
Plus, when they have time to play, they'll experiment with what they are learning in lessons. They also get to see other kids doing things in the water, and that peer pressure sometimes helps encourage them to do things they otherwise wouldn't.
During play time, your child does not have to do anything they don't want to do. They don't have to work. They still have to follow the safety rules such as certain drown prevention and safety measures, like asking permission, using the wall to climb in and out, or using their life jacket in open water, but other than that, they can call the shots. That will help increase their confidence in the water.
4. Don't Use Flotation Devices All the Time
Using the right flotation device with your child is not just about raising a child who is not fearful of the water, but also a child who is safe in the water.
However, children who have to wear a life jacket, puddle jumper, or floaties every time they are in the water don't realize that they can't swim.
One day they are going to make it to the water without that flotation device and have zero concept of what their limits are. If you are using a flotation device for your child, for every 30 minutes they are in the flotation, they should have at least one hour with you holding them and supervising them so they can begin to learn how their body interacts with the water and build that relationship without flotation.
This is also an opportunity for bonding with your child. Skin-to-skin contact helps develop their tactile system, and it builds a trust bond between parent and child.
This way they know their limits, and they can practice their skills freely. They should not be spending 100% of the time they are in the water in a puddle jumper, or even in a life jacket. Just like everything else, moderation is key.
However, if you are choosing puddle jumpers, floaties, or anything that includes bands on the arms, you are not doing your children any swimming favors. These devices will teach your children habits and muscle memory in the water that is contrary to swimming and survival. Flotation devices that cover the arms teach the children to move in a vertical position (what we call the drowning position) in the water, rather than horizontal.
A lifejacket is really the best choice for flotation because it will allow them to get horizontal.
5. Don't Tell Them They Are Going to Drown
Don't ever tell your child they are not allowed to do something in the water because they are going to drown or because they're going to die. You would be surprised by how many parents say that.
Instead, frame the language in a way that it tells them how to be safe. For example, "You're not ready to jump off the diving board quite yet, let's practice jumping in the shallow end first."
This shows them that the water is not a scary, dangerous place, but a place to learn and grow.
6. Don't Wait for Swim Lessons
At Safety Before Skill, we start swim lessons at age 4 months because we believe the earlier you get a child in lessons the better. We especially like to have them in the lesson program before their first birthday, or as soon as they're mobile or walking.
If you wait until the "Terrible Twos" or the "Trying Threes" to do lessons, then other challenges come into play. What parents often mistake as a fear of the water is really just toddler behavior or separation anxiety.
It's best to start them as early as possible.
7. Don't Teach Sink or Swim
There is no evidence to suggest that this method works. A good majority of the adults in this country that can't swim or are afraid to get water in their face (which is approximately 40% of the adults in the US) say their parents threw them in and told them "figure it out."
This creates a trauma that cannot be undone. It will cause a lifetime of damage for your child even if they never talk about it.
The best way to learn to swim is in a nurturing environment where they are safe and where they can build a healthy relationship with the water on their terms.
Never use the sink or swim approach for learning to swim. It should not be taught from a place of fear, but from a place of dignity and respect regardless of their age.
If you don't do these 7 things, you will raise children that have a healthy relationship with the water with positive attitudes and beliefs. These will then lead to, with the help of lessons and layers of protection, children who know how to keep themselves out of trouble in the water and know how to swim.