Guest column: Research shows benefit of early swimming lessons
Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by as much as 88 percent among young children age 1-4, who are at greatest risk of drowning?
Safety skills are usually the primary reason why many parents enroll their babies in swim lessons. With the acquisition of safety skills not only is early swimming life enhancing, it can be lifesaving. The earlier a younger child and his parent can begin their swimming adventure, the sooner the child will be able to build a foundation to perform water safety swimming and floating skills.
A study conducted by Ruth Brenner and her colleagues in 2009 at the National Institute of Health, discovered that participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88% among children aged 1-4 years of age. The researchers concluded that swimming lessons had a preventative effect and should be considered for inclusion as part of a complete preventive program. But as we will demonstrate in this article, there is much more to infant swimming than merely one aspect.
Between the ages of 2 to 6 months infants can begin developing a healthy relationship with the water by enrolling in classes taught with an experienced certified instructor in a licensed pool regulated by the health department. Baby swimming is not only a safety activity but a trail of benefits accompanies the experience which makes baby swimming an essential activity in a child’s development. Research has shown that it benefits an infant emotionally, cognitively, physically and socially.
Emotionally, the simple, relaxing closeness in the water environment establishes a deeper emotional bond between the parent and child. Tender loving strokes from the parent provide the baby with emotional nourishment that allows him to feel accepted and loved. When the skin is gently aroused through stroking and touch, many tactile receptors are stimulated. The skin to skin contact and touch in the water helps to satisfy the child’s need for body contact and tactile stimulation. Research has shown that a firm, loving touch gives the feeling of attachment, commitment and connection. The aquatic environment is an ideal medium for these warm, human interactions.
The early swimmer will also experience a great deal of tactile stimulation from the water resistance over his entire body. The water has over 600 – 700 times the density or resistance of air which encourages neurological development. Tactile stimulation is important for overall neural development. The more tactile stimulation of the nerves the child experiences, the more interconnections and neural pathways can develop.
Another bonus for early swimming is it prepares a child for higher learning. Scientific studies of very young swimmers at the German Sports College, Cologne have shown that early water movement develops the child in three key areas: physically, mentally and emotionally. As compared with a control group which did not take year-round lessons, the children who swam consistently from infancy (three months) were significantly stronger and more coordinated when tested at 2, 3 and 4 years. The children also scored higher for intelligence and problem-solving, which carried over into excellence in academic achievement. Emotionally, they were found to be more self-disciplined with greater self-control and an increased desire to succeed. From consistent goal setting and skill achievement in swimming, they rated higher in self-esteem. Finally, the children were more independent and comfortable in social situations than the control groups.
Research in Australia has also demonstrated that early participation in swim lessons can accelerate a child’s cognitive development. Starting in 2009, Griffith University embarked on a 4 year Early Years Swimming Research Project with 45 swim schools across Australia, New Zealand and USA. The results showed that children, under the age of 5, involved in learn to swim are more advanced in their cognitive and physical development than their non-swimming peers. The results also revealed more marginal benefits to social and language development. In 2011 researchers in Melbourne Australia reported intellectual and physical benefits for early swim lessons. The scientists determined, children who were taught to swim by 5 years of age, had statistically higher IQs because of their early sensory/motor stimulation in the water.
Recent university research confirms the amount of person’s exercise and movement affects the size and memory capacity of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a memory and learning area of the brain located in the medial temporal lobes. Art Kramer and his colleagues at the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh discovered that people who move more or “higher fit people” have bigger hippocampi. They concluded that more tissue in the hippocampus equates with increased ability in certain types of memory. This explicit or declarative memory is necessary for the recall of events and facts needed in academic learning.
Early swimming or paddling around promotes cross lateral patterning. Bilateral cross patterning movements in crawling, walking and swimming aid in overall efficiency in brain processes. The more bilateral cross patterning movements, the more nerve fibers develop in the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a tract of nerve fibers, 250 million nerve fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain and facilitate the communication, feedback and modulation from one side of the brain to the other. Cross lateral movements like swimming activate both cerebral hemispheres and all four lobes of the brain simultaneously, which can result in heightened cognition and increased ease of learning.
In 2009 research has shown that swim lessons for babies advanced their physical development. Studies conducted at Norwegian University of Science & Technology with Dr. Hermundur Sigmundsson and his colleagues found baby swimmers developed better balance, movement and grasping techniques than non-swimmers. This difference persisted even when the children were five years old; the baby swimmers still outperformed their peers in balance, movement and grasping skills.
Scientific studies have shown participation in swim class helps to strengthen a child’s self-confidence. In a longitudinal study, Dr. Liselott Diem and her colleagues reported that children, who took part in baby swim lessons from the age of 2 months to 4 years, were better adapted to new situations, had better self-confidence and independence than non-swimmers. In swim class the child cooperates within a social structure to take turns, to share and to cooperate. This fosters a sense of belonging which builds self-esteem and develops social confidence.
Baby swimming is not only a fun, life-saving activity, but it has a myriad of benefits in a very young child’s development. Baby swim class can help a child to improve socially, emotionally and physically. It can also help to increase a baby’s alertness, intelligence and concentrating abilities. Through interaction in a swim class a child learns to develop confidence, self-esteem and independence. Baby swim class is an essential activity in the enhancement of a young child’s development.
Nationally recognized swim expert Lana Whitehead is owner of SWIMkids USA in Mesa. Lana speaks at conferences around the world about swim lessons. She was featured on the TODAY show this past spring and in July’s Parent’s Magazine.