At five months, my baby could swim like a fish

Babies love being in the water - and, with sensible precautions, swimming is great exercise for them. By Marina Baker
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WHEN YVAN Godby was five months old, he couldn't walk, couldn't talk - but could swim like a pro. Now, aged two-and-a-half, the toddler takes a running leap into the pool, goes under and comes up laughing. Compared to arm-band-clad children twice his age, his confidence seems quite remarkable.

Yvan took up the sport after his mother, Janine, enrolled him on a course with the junior swimming club Little Dippers. "I think it's important to give a child confidence in the water," she says. Yvan can already swim to the surface from the bottom of the pool, swim to the side and hold on. "Obviously," says Janine, "I would never leave him unsupervised near water. But because he knows about swimming under water, if an accident did ever happen, God forbid, I think there's a chance he could help himself, or at least stay afloat until help arrived."

Lauren Heston, a qualified diver who runs Little Dipper courses across the south of England, supports this claim. "Awful things can happen," she says. "One toddler who had been swimming with me was playing by a pond with older children who were supposedly looking after him. As kids do, they wandered off. When his distraught mother went looking for him, she found him happily floating on his back." Lauren Heston has many tales like this to tell. But, she says, "I cannot stress strongly enough that no child should be allowed to get into such a situation. My son is eight and is a fantastically strong swimmer. But if he ever took to water without me present, I'd be furious with him."

She believes that babies not only learn a valuable life-saving skill, but also have fun and get fitter. And they are never too young to start swimming. "I will happily take newborns into a pool," she says. "So long as the pool is warm enough, heated to 92F, and the child is healthy. But at my classes I prefer to wait until they've had their eight-week review, just to make sure."

Once children are deemed healthy, Lauren says, swimming can only make them even healthier, building up their hearts and lungs. "It exercises them in an amazing way," she believes. "Swimming is the best exercise. It improves co-ordination, encourages muscle development and even helps to establish sleeping patterns. It exhausts them. I even believe it improves colic."

Also, it introduces children to an active lifestyle at a very young age. "If you make a point of taking your baby to a pool every week, as they grow older they see it as part of their lives. Babies are born with a natural diving reflex. Until they're a year old they instinctively hold their breath and swim below the surface without needing to be taught.

"Eventually they will need swimming lessons, but if they are used to the water they are more likely to have the strength to hold their heads up out of the water and to kick their legs."

Professor David Hall, a community paediatrician based in Sheffield, questions whether a 20-minute session in a pool once a week has much effect on a baby's fitness. "There's no research, really, to back this up," he says. "However, I can't see that any harm can be done. In reality, children are far more likely to drown at a wedding reception at a hotel. While the parents are gossiping the child wanders off and finds a pond or a pool. That's the real danger, not supervised classes or organised water sports.

"Some people," he continues, "believe babies shouldn't be taken swimming until they've had their vaccinations. This is a myth, from the days when people wrongly thought that polio was caught in swimming-pools. Since the rest of the population is vaccinated, and pools contain chlorine, there is no real risk of a baby picking up serious infections. Besides, younger babies have the benefit of immunity inherited from their mothers."

And he adds, "Anything that encourages children to be active, involves their parents and teaches that exercise can be fun, can only be seen as a good thing."

But the Amateur Swimming Association has reservations. "We recommend six months as the minimum swimming age," says a spokesman. "And no child should swim if they have open sores or an upper respiratory infection. Also, if the pool isn't 92 degrees a baby can quickly become chilled. And if a child swallows too much water it can affect their kidneys, causing them to shut down and the baby to go into a deep sleep, which can be dangerous.

"We don't advise allowing babies to swim under water. Little research has been done because no one wants to test it. You could argue that if you threw a child off a multi-storey car park he might bounce. But who wants to find out? So while we would say there's no evidence it can harm, we can't see any advantages."

`Water Baby!' by Lauren Heston is published by Element, price pounds 9.99. Little Dippers, for babies (01273 328 275); Aqua Babies, for babies and toddlers (0181-806 1515)