Can baby swimming too early negatively impact early years development?
Parents are feeling compelled to rush their newborn babies into the pool against professional health advice because of the lack of swim industry policies and a commercial drive.
Ten years ago, the national standard to take a baby swimming into a public pool in the UK was six months. NHS guidelines state that you can take a baby swimming before they have had their first immunisations. But sadly, this is now being taking literally, with media promotions to start babies in organised classes from birth. The champion, if you can call the baby a winner was joining a baby swim group at just one day old! (1)
In our opinion here at Aqua Sensory this is too early.
At the moment there isn’t a UK swim policy that says when we should start taking our baby swimming. This led to the commercial drive taken over, the competitive nature of the baby swimming industry and the promotional drive for parents to start baby group has meant our common sense has faded and babies are starting earlier and earlier.
Don’t get us wrong, here at Aqua Sensory we are all for starting swimming early on.
Baby swimming benefits
Introducing a baby to water has well-documented advantages. Water can help to stimulate a child’s sensory development and offers important bonding opportunities with parents amongst other benefits. Compared to other children who haven’t, those who have been swimming from an early age, generally have better motor, social and cognitive skills. (2)
But what is the right age to start a newborn baby swimming in the pool?
We would like to see a shift in attitude and a baby swim policy from swim industry professionals is to wait until a baby turns six weeks before introducing a child-led approach. We oppose the ethos of competitive swim schools introducing newborn babies into classes that promoting a too rigid teaching style.
We believe the precious newborn stage is much more suited at home in the bath, where the sensory environment can be controlled and the baby’s needs are met.
Taking a baby-led approach is crucial and the foundation of good mental and physical health.
Rushing a baby into swimming lessons establishes a competitive attitude that can negate the benefits. At a young age, any exposure to water should be a relaxed and calming experience for a baby, whether it’s bath or pool time.
Creating an environment around competition and progression at such an early age can be counterproductive to any stimulation benefits. Getting caught up in rushing babies into the swimming lesson system means that the baby’s needs are not put first.
Sensory systems are underdeveloped
Babies are highly sensory sensitive and need to be protected. In the womb, all their needs are met. Some may say that this watery environment means that babies transition from the womb to the pool will be an easy and comfortable one. But we disagree. The amniotic waters of the womb are the perfect temperature, with no bright lights, loud noises and all the nutrients they need direct when they need it.
When they are born their sensory world changes.
Here are just ten reasons to think about why newborn’s sensory needs should be put first:
- A newborn’s nervous system is underdeveloped, babies cannot control the amount of sensory stimulation or habituate. They need adults to control their environment, they cannot move away from excess stimulation.
- Their vision is blurry, they cannot focus and are very sensitive to light.
- Movements are uncontrolled and jerky and led by their head positioning.
- They are highly sensitive to touch and changes in temperature.
- Strong smells can give warnings of danger and evoke negative reactions.
- Loud noises can react a moro reflex which is a response to stress.
- it is hard for new parents to read their newborns cues at first. To time the perfect session in-between sleeps and feeds when classes are on or the pool is available, therefore forcing baby to feel not comfortable.
- Babies are most receptive in their calm-alert state. All too often we see babies swimming in the active-alert state giving warning signals like hands clasped tightly, tightly braced bodies, rooting to feed. Their nervous system is giving warning signals, it is trying to self-calm and can quickly move to the fussy stage where the baby is giving definite warning signs of not being comfortable. Their heart rate changes, their skin colour changes and if not calmed can quickly lead to the full-blown ‘cry response.’ To say, I have had enough.
- Ignoring the early signs of discomfort and allowing the baby to cry in the water could release negative chemicals onto the brain. The opposite effect that we want for baby swimming.
- Repeating negative experiences can change the architecture of the brain.
The STA in partnership with Birthlight, have issued guidelines that state that babies under 3 months are highly sensitive to sensory stimulation as part of their Diploma Qualification. Their introduction to public pools requires specialist skills from trained swimming teachers to lower the risk of age-inappropriate stimulation that can be damaging in the short or long term. (3)
Here at Aqua Sensory we want our national swim governing bodies to go a step further and introduce a policy that babies should not start swimming in public pools before the age of six weeks.
Let’s look at what the health professionals are saying to parents, should we not be taking more guidance from them to help us decide when to take our baby swimming?
Skin is too sensitive
Midwives tell us that water and cotton wool are the only things that should be used newborn skin. The current NHS recommendation is;
“It’s best to bath your baby with plain water only for at least the first month. If you need to, you can also use some mild, non-perfumed soap. Avoid skin lotions, medicated wipes or adding cleansers to your baby’s bath water.” (4)
This includes no olive oil, no medicated wipes and no products should be exposed to a baby for the first 3 to 4 months at least. (5)
“There are important differences between the infant and adult skin. The skin of a newborn is well developed to cope with extra-uterine life, but there are some differences to that of an adult. For example; an infants skin is more delicate and therefore more prone to irritate and allergic reactions.” (6)
Vernix – the super substance
The most current research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises parents to delay a baby’s first bath. This is because babies are born with a super protective substance called vernix. It looks like a white cheese layer on their skin and provides a natural protective skin barrier against bacteria and microbes. Washing this off too early can have negative long-term health and gut implications (7)
Post-natal advice we currently receive is to keep a baby’s cord clean and dry, and not to even bathe until the cord has fallen off (approximately day 10). Rushing a baby into a public pool until this time could cause infection. (8) (9)
Why would parents want to go against this health professional advice and put their newborn baby at risk from the chemicals in a swimming pool?
Mother and baby physical separation
The first few weeks after birth is not only a magical time for both mother and baby, but also an important one for the reciprocal effects of bonding the relationship. Doctors in the UK provide an important six-week check for the postnatal healing process not only for the body but also for the mind. Scientific evidence presents us with that the physical separation of a newborn baby can cause internal stress. (10)
In no way we wish to decrease the father’s role of other key caregivers in the attunement and important role in the bonding process. But we must acknowledge the fact that “It is the maternal sensations that help regulate the baby’s brain. The mother precisely controls every element of her infant’s physiology, including its heart rate, the release of hormones, appetite, and intensity of activity. Dr. Bergman (drawing on the work of Myron Arms Hofer) said this creates an invisible hothouse in which the infant’s development can unfold. The mother must feel safe, protected, and relaxed in order to keep the baby feeling safe, protected, and relaxed.” (11) The father can play a key role in also bonding skin to skin with baby in the bath and keeping mother and baby safe and relaxed.
I am sure this article may not be well received by some commercial swim companies or companies promoting swim nappies to sell for newborn swimming. But, in our fast-changing world there has to be strong voices for our children. Here at Aqua Sensory we are all for swimming from an early age, but let’s re-iterate – it must be within the right environment for the baby. With limited access to quiet, warm and low chemical pools, the best place surely must be at home in the bath? (12)
Watch our bath video to see how magical this can be
Is it about time we started to question the whys more?
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” Alison Duff Calmababy & Birthlight Tutor.
Are you ready to stand firm? To question your swim practices? Are they attuned to the baby? Are you ready to accept the notion that babies are far more sensitive than you would have first thought? Babies can easily sense the emotional quality, they sense vibrations, rhythms and sounds through the skin. These early imprints can last a lifetime, so it is our job a parents and industry professionals to ensure that they are as positive as we can make them, with minimal stress.
So I will leave you with the question..….. why am should we introduce babies into pools under 6 weeks? It is for me or is it for baby?
AQUA SENSORY PROVIDES A RICH MIXTURE OF SENSORY EXPLORATION AND EARLY DEVELOPMENTAL OPPORTUNITIES
The Aqua Sensory programme promotes an attuned approach to baby swimming, creating strong bonds and early attachments.
The Aqua Sensory principles offer a child-led approach that promotes the idea of waiting for:
- Sensory harmony and synchronised activities to make the brain and the body smile
- Creating magical memories and strengthen bonds for families
- Offering parent and swim school support, to help children in our fast changing world
Aqua Sensory founder, Jo Wilson comments, “We are passionate about introducing babies to water and stimulating them in the right way to support their development. Aqua Sensory is not swimming lessons; it’s a child development programme in water, which actually helps children learn quicker in the long-run”.
1) http://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/15539932.One_day_old_baby_bec omes_the_youngest_swimmer_to_join_in_with_water_fun/
2) https://app.secure.griffith.edu.au/news/2013/08/13/swimming-a-smart- move-for-children/
3) https://www.sta.co.uk/news/2016/11/07/sta-and-birthlight-tutors-share- expertise-ahead-of-diploma-launch/
4) http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/your-baby-after- birth.aspx
5) http://www.royalberkshire.nhs.uk/Downloads/GPs/MaternityGuidelinesand Policies/Postnatal/Skincareforthetermbaby_V3.2_GL915.pdf
7) World Health Organization. (n.d.). Recommendations on newborn health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/guidelines- recommendations-newborn-health.pdf
12) http://www.birthlight.com/news.aspx?news=891 Introducing new babies to water: the risks of chlorinated swimming pools and the benefits of home tubs