Bath Time: Their First Swim Lessons

Swimming Is Complicated

Believe it or not, we start learning to swim during our very first bath time. How can that be?

Swimming is more complicated than most people realize. If you have ever tried to teach a kid to swim, particularly young children and infants, you quickly realize that we are not born knowing how to swim. In order to learn to swim, we have to be shown how to swim. It is by no means instinctual.

Beside the physical movements involved in swimming, there is also being able to tolerate being in the water and knowing how to hold our breath. That is where the bath time adventures begin.

Safety First

Safety Alert!

We are dedicated to reducing drownings in Knoxville, so we must say a few things.

Never leave a child of any age alone in a bath. According to the CDC, most children under 1 drown in bathtubs and drowning is the leading cause of death for children age 1 to 4.

Whatever it is you forget or need to do, it can wait.

I repeat, children should always be supervised in the bath.

Their First Bath Is Their First Swim Lesson

We already stated that learning to swim involved being able to tolerate being in the water. Some newborns take to the water without any problems. However, many newborns don’t like it at all! There are many reasons for this:

    • Temperature (too hot or too cold)
    • Sensation (feeling like they are falling, the sloshing of the water)
    • Unfamiliar place
    • Feeling alone (even if you are right there)

The hardest part for most older children is getting water on their face. We have many 3-year-old students that scream like we cut their leg off if a few drops of water get on there face. You can easily prevent this by doing bath time well when they are newborns! Here are some tips to start with your newborn’s bath.

Bathtub Time With Newborns

It is generally recommended to wait until the umbilical cord falls off before putting your newborn’s body in water. Until then, give them a sponge bath a be sure that you wipe their face. It is important even at this stage to get their face wet.

When you are ready for a more traditional bath, follow these steps to give your newborn the best experience and to help them learn to swim.

    • Make sure the temperature is warm, not too hot or cold
    • Don’t lay them down, put their feet down first and then lay them back (prevents falling sensation)
    • Put your hand under there head and hold them during the entire bath
    • Place a warm, wet washcloth over their body so they are not exposed to the air
    • Make sure the water level is just high enough to be touching most of their body without them being all the way underwater
    • Don’t let their ears or face go underwater (this comes later when they are older)
    • Sing songs and play with toys to make it fun
    • Talk to them about how much fun water is
    • Use a damp wash cloth to get water on their face (see below)

Getting their face wet is key to prevent them from hating water on their face when they are older. We do not recommend pouring water on their face at this stage. When you get their face wet with the wash cloth, say things like “Good job getting your face wet! Yeaaaaaa!” That communicates to the child that getting their face wet is a good thing.

When you use the damp wash cloth, don’t wring it out on their face. Just wipe their face with it. That is all they need to get used to water on their face at this stage.

Most newborns will love bath time if you do all this! If they don’t like getting their face wet, then wait until they calm down and try again with a less damp wash cloth or even just use a wet hand to wipe their face. Whatever they will do, just build up from there!

Getting More Water On Their Face

Once the child can sit up, you can do bath time a little differently. This is where you introduce pouring water on their head. Here are some tips for bath time with infants who can sit up and older.

Bath Time For Infants Who Can Sit Up And Older

    • Using a smaller tub is a great idea for infants (saves water, keeps child in water)
    • Keep the water warm, not too hot or cold
    • Make sure most of the child’s body is under water in small tub (keeps them warm, good practice for being in a pool)
    • Don’t overfill smaller tubs (many smaller tubs have a maximum fill line)
    • If they are in the big tub, fill it up enough to get to their belly button
    • Use toys
    • Sing songs
    • Get water on their face using your hand or a cup (details below)

Again, getting children used to water on their face will make a world of difference when they start learning to swim. Here are the steps to take to get water on their face.

Steps For Water On Face

The goals is to get water on their face about 10 times every bath time to become more water acclimated.

Prep) Right before you get water on their face, use a cue. At All Knox Swim, we say “Ready. 1, 2, 3!” You never want to surprise a child with a bucket of water on their face. This will spook them and make them never want to do it again. Also, every time they get water on their face, even if they splash water on their own face, praise them like they won the Noble Prize for Water Acclimation. You can say things like “You did it! Good job getting water on your face!”

Step 1) Start with just a few drops of water from your finger tips.

Step 2) Build up to a small handful of water.

Step 3) Use a cup and do a small water pour over their head.

Step 4) Build up to a full sheet of water over their face that last 5 seconds.

The goal in getting water on their face is to prepare them for being comfortable in the water and holding their breath. If you pour a sheet of water over their face, it forces them to hold their breath. This helps them in the future when they are ready to put their own face in the water.

Here are some “no-no’s” while doing bath time.

No-no’s Of Bath Time

DON’T wipe their face with a towel in-between water pouring. This communicates to the child that water on their face is a bad thing. Tell them to wipe their own face off with their own hands. Use a towel only after bath time is over.

DON’T say things like “I’m sorry” or “It’s okay, it’s okay”. They pick up on our emotions, so don’t communicate negative emotions or nervousness.

DON’T let them “cheat” by leaning their head forward. If the water doesn’t get on their face, it doesn’t help.

DON’T back down if the child gets upset. Simply wait until they calm all the way down, then do it again. They may not like it right away. If you need to, just back up a step or two, then build back up from there.

DON’T rush it. Take your time. You can spend multiple bath times on the same step if you need to.

DON’T teach them to blow bubbles in the water. Although blowing bubbles is a fun activity, we don’t recommend it. Often times, kids that blow bubbles in the water have a hard time holding their breath when they are learning to swim. They not only have a hard time holding their breath very long under water, but they also have a harder time floating. The air in our lungs helps us float! Unless they will not put their face in any other way, stick to the Chipmunk Cheeks (read on to learn about Chipmunk Cheeks).

Bath Time Additions For Toddlers And Older

When your child gets a little older, around 1.5 to 2 years old give-or-take, you can introduce two more things to bath time: putting their own face in and getting their ears wet (floating on their back).

Putting Their Own Face In

You can show them how you put your face in the water. Lean over the tub, and put your face in. Then encourage them to try it. Make sure they don’t fall over, though! If they will even try it, that is awesome! Praise them like crazy if they do it.

If they come up coughing, they probably just sucked in a little water. They are okay. Don’t freak out. Every student we teach sucks in a little water. It is part of learning to hold their breath. Stay calm and praise them, then quickly distract them with a toy or something fun. You want them to forget about it. There isn’t a number requirement here. Whatever they will do is great.

Getting Ears Wet (Back Float)

Most young children hate getting their ears wet. It is a strange sensation, so I don’t blame them. However, they can build up a tolerance for it. If you persevere, they will like it one day.

In a normal sized bath tub, fill the water level up just enough that the water will cover their whole ear when they lay on their back without getting the rest of their face wet. No baptisms, please! Start with just a quick dip in the water. Then, build up to a few seconds. The goal is for them to be comfortable doing it indefinitely.

Once they can keep their ears in the water indefinitely, fill up the water enough that their bottom will come off the ground. This is their first practice at back floating. Many children will feel like they are falling and may get upset. Praise them for trying, distract them, then try again later. The goal is for them to be able to float on their back in the tub indefinitely.

Bath Time Additions For Young Children And Older

When children seem to have a better understanding of how they control their breathing, 2 to 3 years old give-or-take, then you can introduce what we call “Chipmunk Cheeks”. Chipmunk Cheeks has two steps. First, they take a big breath in. Then, they puff their cheeks out like a chipmunk with acorns in it’s mouth without releasing any air through their mouth or nose.

The goal is to take the biggest breath in that you can. If they do it correctly, they will not have anymore room in their lungs to breath in more when they put their face in the water. This prevents them from sucking in the water.

Many children struggle with this at first. They may breath out instead of breath in. They may blow out their nose while puffing their cheeks out. Keep practicing and they will get it.

If they struggle with taking a big breath, you can practice by blowing bubbles (not in the water, but actual bubbles with wands) or blowing a candle. Tell them to take a big breath, then blow. Then, tell them to stop before they blow out. This will teach them to take a big breath.

When you have the child practice putting their face in, use the Chipmunk Cheeks. You can build up to their whole face going in the water by starting with their chin, then adding their lips, nose, and eyes consecutively. Start with quick dips, then see if they can keep their whole face in the water for 2 seconds, counting out loud to 2. The goal for kids this age is at least 5 seconds with eyes, nose, and mouth in the water. If they can do that comfortably, they have a great head start in their swimming skills!

If you do all this from the beginning, you will have a child that loves the water. If your child already doesn’t like water on their face and you follow these guidelines, your kid will come around. Just give it time! They may hate your guts for a bit, but it will be worth it in the end.

If you have questions about anything you read, feel free to email us at and we will answer all your question.

You can also learn more about the swim lessons we offer.

May your bath times be wonderful and safe!

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