THE FIRST BIG QUESTION concerned whether a baby could go swimming before its eight-week vaccinations.
I’m pleased to report that the latest NHS guideline is that a baby can go swimming at any age, before or after being vaccinated.
A more crucial consideration, particularly for those tempted to dip their newborn child in British waters, is ensuring that the water temperature is a toasty 32°C for babies under 12 weeks or 30°C for those over 12 weeks old.
We turned up for our first half-hour lesson at a pool on the outskirts of Exeter that was filled with the cacophony of tiny voices. With all the steam emitted from the tropically heated pool, it felt like stepping into a sauna.
Just like school, the classes are run over three terms, and you must sign up for a set of 12 weekly classes at a time. In fact, you have to commit to the next term within a few weeks of the prior term starting, which is a sign both of the classes’ popularity and the highly commercialised experience on offer.
Our class comprised six babies, each allowed one accompanying parent in the pool. The teacher learns the baby’s names but not yours; from now on I would be known as “Apolline’s dad”.
Babies instinctively use the laryngeal reflex to hold their breath under water.
We quickly grew to love our instructor Kirsty’s teaching manner, comprising a well-balanced mix of calm authority and friendly fun.
With no time to waste, we were quickly off with warm-up exercises, walking in a circle with babies in outstretched arms, bouncing them this way and that in the warm water.
We then started habituating them to immersion and breath-holds by saying: “Apolline, ready, go”, and then splashing their face with water. Apolline was two months old at this point, and seemed slightly puzzled by the whole experience!
During the very first class, the babies also completed their first full immersion, with Kirsty repeating the “name, ready, go” mantra before very briefly putting Apolline under and then back up. Some of the babies cry on their return to the surface while others stay cool, but it is often the parents who are most nervous.
The important thing to remember is that while, to the uninitiated, it may appear cruel, this class is actually tapping into an innate set of instincts designed to prevent humans from drowning.
At this point in their learning, the babies are relying on their laryngeal reflex (also known as the gag reflex).
When sensing the feeling of water on its face, nose, throat and voicebox, the baby instinctively holds its breath and soft tissue seals the back of the throat to prevent any water ingression.
Thanks to the laryngeal reflex, you will often see babies under water with their mouths open, which can look a bit shocking but is perfectly normal.
This reflex is strongest in the first six months of a child’s life, before gradually wearing off by its first birthday. As such, starting swimming early is easier for babies, because the laryngeal reflex is still strong.