NZ Woman's Weekly

Tips for teaching your kids how to swim

We Kiwis love the water, but sadly it doesn’t always love us. Over the last five years, an average of 105 people have drowned in New Zealand every year, which is one of the worst drowning tolls in the developed world. As well as observing water safety guidelines – such as wearing life jackets on a boat – one of the best things we can do to try to lower these statistics is teach our kids to swim.

Getting your baby used to the water can start from the moment they have their first bath. Supporting them in warm water will get them used to the sensation of being surrounded by water and you can make it fun and stress-free.

Water Safety New Zealand does not recommend babies under six months go to public swimming pools unless there is a professional swimming instructor with them. Once they get to six months, there are a variety of things you can do to help them feel comfortable in the water.

These include holding them under their armpits and towing them through the water, or rolling them gently from side to side, keeping their head out of the water. You can get them used to having water on their face by gently pouring very small amounts over them from a cup or by squeezing a sponge. Don’t do this out of the blue or it may scare them. Prepare them by saying their name and “one, two, three, go!”

Once they get to around 18 months, you can show them how to blow bubbles under water and breathe in air above the surface of the water. To give babies as young as six months the idea that they can kick their legs, gently move their legs up and down while they are in the water.

Once they get to about a year, babies should be able to kick and splash on their own, while you still provide support to their legs above the knees. By the time they get to two they may be able to use a flotation device, but make sure an adult stays with them at all times. Encourage them to move with the device by kicking their legs. Help them to float on their own by holding flat hands under their back and neck and gently moving them backwards and forwards in the water.

To get them used to their head going under the water, gradually hold them lower in the water as you pull them along and let a little bit flow over their head. Never force your child to go under the water if they seem scared.

Child swimming

By this stage they should be getting more used to putting their head under. Teach them to breathe by encouraging them to blow bubbles on the surface of the water, and then blow them with their mouth and nose under the water. They can practise this skill by trying to move a small floating toy – or a ping pong ball – along the surface of the water by blowing bubbles.

They can get the hang of kicking by using a flotation device such as a kickboard to propel themselves through the water. You can also help them to get the feel of doggy paddling by demonstrating the movements with their limbs and then supporting their hips as they try it themselves. Keep up the floating practice. Getting them to rest their head on your shoulder while you use a hand to support their back is a nice cosy way of doing this.

Now is the time to build on the basic techniques they’ve been getting used to and learn swimming strokes. If you haven’t already invested in goggles and a kickboard these are well worth having. Your child can start by kicking their way down the pool using the kickboard, putting their head under and breathing as they go.

Once they’re comfortable with this they can try using their arms as well and co-ordinate this with their breathing. Remind them that if they can float, they can simply roll over onto their back and have a rest if they find themselves struggling with swimming strokes and breathing. Practice makes perfect and the more they swim, the better they will get at it.

To master the basic swimming techniques of kicking and breathing, invest in a kickboard that your child can use to practise with.

Let your child go at their own pace. Everyone is different – some kids take to it like the proverbial duck to water, while others feel quite literally out of their depth. Never force them to do things they aren’t happy about or they could end up with a fear of the water. Take things gradually and stay in the water with them.

For more information on swimming and water safety, see

Issue 1541

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