Emma Kimberley holds her breath under water and immediately starts kicking to reach the surface. She is 11 months old.
WHILE she cannot reach the surface quite yet, her weekly swimming lessons have given her a fighting chance.
The end goal is to teach babies like her, if they should fall into the pool, to flip onto their backs and float until help is at hand, or to ultimately swim to the edge and hold on.
I have been swimming with my daughter since she was seven months old and in this short period she has learnt to swim with a pool noodle and kicking board and hold her breath under water.
Like most things in life, and especially with children, perseverance is key.
Our first swimming lesson at Water Babies SA four months ago was tough.
Emma did not enjoy herself, and in turn, neither did Mommy. She screamed when this stranger, now her beloved coach, dunked her under water, and was all too eager for the lesson to come to an end.
Today, she cries when it is time to get out of the pool.
Water Babies opened its doors to the Port Elizabeth public in 2010, a new concept in South Africa at the time. They give lessons six days a week at heated indoor pools in Newton Park and Walmer.
While to some, seven months might sound a little young to be dunking a baby under water, according to coach and swim school owner Elric van Velden, the earlier the better.
He has coached some children, including his own, from just three weeks old.
Van Velden’s words to our class at our first lesson rang true. He said babies spent nine months in liquid in the womb, so being in water was something that should come naturally to them.
Water Babies, as an early childhood development programme, teaches fine and gross motor skills, reflex actions like grabbing, gagging and floating, social skills, muscle development, brain development, logical thinking, submersion skills, parent bonding, independence and most importantly, confidence in the water.
“A lot of these skills will fall away if a baby does not utilise them at the correct age, which is why we recommend babies start as early as three weeks,” Van Velden said.
The programmes at Water Babies are designed for two groups: babies and toddlers. Each group has specific lessons, movements, activities and equipment that is used.
Lessons start off slowly with the baby simply being held in Mom or Dad’s arms and gently being moved through the water to get used to the sensation.
Different holding techniques are then used to get baby more comfortable about exploring the water in a safe manner. Then floating is encouraged.
After a few classes babies learn to blow bubbles on the surface and splash about. Over time and when baby and parent are ready, gentle submersions follow.
“Because we are all mammals and are actually born around water [amniotic fluid] we are already born with the skill to swim. But it is how these skills are utilised and developed that is important and ultimately could be vital in saving a child’s life.
“All babies love water and it is very rare to find a baby that doesn’t, but when that does happen it is because a lot of the time the parent is afraid of the water.”
Van Velden insists swimming lessons not only assist the baby or child to become water confident but also help parents overcome their fears.
“With our easy, fun activities in the water with parent and child, there is no doubt a bond will grow and a love of water will be formed,” he said. And I can attest to this.
There is nothing more intimate than being in the water with your child. A bond is built through trust. Their little hands grip to you and know that you will be there when they come up to the surface. If they struggle, you will help them along.
The confidence I have seen build up in my child is tangible. She loves the water and splatters around in the bath and pool at home with so much confidence.
If she falls in the bath, she holds her breath and because she no longer swallows the water, she does not cough or splatter like she once did.
This is very important, Van Velden says, as the majority of reported drownings occur in the bath.
Activities are taught with nursery rhymes and songs, making them easy to remember and practise at home.
The pool is heated to 31°C, making babies comfortable in the water as if it were a playful bath time. It is salt chlorinated and does not affect skin or eyes.