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Wow! 8 gold medals in as many days. Michael Phelps had us open-mouthed in awe and wonder: seemingly uncomfortable in his own body on dry land but fishlike as he dolphin-kicked his way through the shimmering water of the Beijing Watercube


We can’t all be Michael Phelps nor, perhaps, would many of us strive to be but safety and confidence in water is something that perhaps every child should learn - a life-saving tool at the very least but also a way to keep fit and have fun.

Paula Hickman started swimming at the age of 3, joining her older brother in swimming classes. Whilst Paula competed until she was 16, her brother, James Hickman, continued on the international stage, becoming a 5 times World Record Holder, Commonwealth Gold Medallist and Olympian.

Paula did a sidestep into film and television but on the birth of her daughter got back into the pool and now specializes in teaching young children to enjoy swimming through water confidence courses which flow in harmony with the child’s body and brain development:

So, what is water confidence?

Water confidence is based on safety as a priority. With drowning believed to be the third most common cause of accidental death in children, teaching a child as young as possible is vital. Through specially designed techniques which help the child relax and breathe properly, children are helped to develop survival skills without the added tension of them feeling in danger, or abandoned, as they learn. For example, children are taught skills such as what to do with air: blowing bubbles rather than inhaling water.

How does water confidence help development?

3D environments in water are created through games. This freedom of buoyancy and independence for small children is a welcome break from playing on dry land where gravity makes exercise harder. In the swimming pool, by moving freely, they can develop their arms and leg muscles, learn to cross over their midline - where their right arm crosses over the left hand side of their body - and start to feel balance; all key elements for early years motor development.

This is approached through gentle, natural play which builds confidence. The children learn incidentally rather than through a formal process of teaching kicking and paddling. By playing games, they pick this up without too much thinking. Circuit games, making the pool like a playground with activities in each corner, using the bottom of the pool, jumping off the side and turning big foam mats into slides are all ways to build confidence and skills.

In the swimming pool, by moving freely, they can develop their arms and leg muscles

Social skills?

Children also learn to socialize with other children and adults in a calm world away from the stresses of real life. This is where fathers’ involvement can also come into play, believes Paula: “It gives dads an opportunity for “skin on skin” bonding with their child, something that mothers usually get more of a chance to experience. It is often the case that dads are more chilled out and are up for playing a bit more and letting their kids go a bit further than mums.”

Parents’ fears?

But what if, as a parent, you fear water yourself or are scared for your child?

“Parents who themselves are scared of water but don’t want to pass on their fears and who want their children to be confident safe swimmers can also benefit from the classes and gaining water confidence.”

Paula Hickman frequently finds one or two parents in a class who are not confident - she gives them homework too - “putting their face in water in a salad bowl and blowing out bubbles into the bowl.”

What about the “dunking technique” or submergence?

There continues to be some debate with regards to forced submergence of babies and toddlers. A number of schools see submergence as a priority for teaching. Paula believes the focus should not be entirely on submergence - some kids love it and take to it immediately but there are certain risks to consider - potentially damaging the relationship between parent and child or child and water: “When the child feels confident and in control they will submerge of their own free will.”

Swimming in the Amazon?

These theories are very much in harmony with the work of Françoise Freedman, who, through her Birthlight Trust, an educational charity set up in Cambridge, has developed practices inspired by yoga and the natural swimming style seen in Amazonian tribes. Whilst undertaking anthropological fieldwork in the Amazon, Françoise saw how Amazonian children learnt to swim in the rivers. Learning was easy and babies rarely cried. Babies were trained to hold on to their parents and swim towards them, being picked up before they got distressed so the experience was fun and easy.

Françoise explains the success of this method: “Relaxed holding is developed so that babies gain an increasing sense of security and freedom in their own time until they are ready to take off away from the parents’ arms, preferably without swimming aids but with the use of buoyancy supports such as short foam woggles. From the start, parents are guided to hold their babies as little as possible and particular techniques have been developed to this effect.”

“Relaxed holding is developed so that babies gain an increasing sense of security and freedom in their own time until they are ready to take off away from the parents’ arms”

The integration of “movement, rhythm, eye contact, speech and song” while babies are held in water is encouraged. It is helpful if parents are immersed and on the same eye level with their babies. She explains: “Front rides where you swim on your back with your baby on your chest are the first stage followed by back rides where babies cling to their parent’s backs while they swim breast-stroke. This then leads to seal dives in which parents with their babies on their backs swim freely and take dives.

Transition to voluntary kicking and using the arms is an important stage from the end of the first year onwards so special games have been developed for the transition period and keep interaction between parent and child.”

Paula Hickman strongly believes that gentle encouragement is the key rather than forcing children beyond their will. So, her beliefs sit very well with those of Françoise Freedman. The children learn incidentally rather than through a formal process of teaching kicking and paddling. By playing games, they pick this up without too much thinking.

She passes on her belief in her articles advising swim teachers: “We are in a very special and responsible position as Baby and pre-school swim teachers, as we are sharing with babies & children some of their very first water experiences. Surely, our desired outcome is for the child to experience a feeling of confidence, freedom and harmony in the water. We have plenty of time to achieve this. There is no hurry. If we go too fast, especially with introducing lots of forced underwater experiences, we are at risk of inducing a feeling of fear or abandonment. If we look back, this is the opposite of our desired outcome.

The diving reflex definitely occurs when we put a child under the water. We have witnessed it many times. However, it is a reflex to survive. It is a response to oxygen deprivation. In other areas of life we do not desire to put our babies in situations that elicit survival reflexes very frequently. We must remember that we have a great deal of time for the baby to choose to have this experience . . . and when they do, surely they are more ready. Freedom of choice.”

Splash About’s Top 10 Tips for Baby Swimming

1. Firstly make sure you have a qualified Baby swim teacher, there are many excellent schools and teachers around. You can search the internet for a school near you or look on for a list of teachers in the UK.
2. Relax, this is a bonding time for you and your baby, something you will remember all your life and a great start for your little one.
3. Make sure you are swimming in a warm, clean pool. The pool should be at least 31° and all babies and toddlers still using nappies should be wearing good swim nappies.
4. Never take your baby in the pool if they are unwell - or if you are. It won’t be a happy time and you are risking your baby’s, as well as other people’s, health.
5. If the water is cooler, or if in a warm pool your baby is chilly, use one of the great Warm in Water mini wetsuits available. Also helps eliminate the pool to changing room shivers!
6. Smile, smile, smile at your baby, keep eye contact, praise her!
7. Make sure the school you swim with is properly insured.
8. Never make the mistake of using a normal disposable nappy, they absorb and hold the water, weighing baby down. If you are going to use disposable nappies use one especially for swimming, they are available at all good supermarkets and some nursery stores.
9. Don’t ever try and immerse your baby without proper instruction! The beautiful photographs you see of under water babies are always taken AFTER a swimming course is completed and with trained teachers in full control. Please never attempt to do it yourself.
10. A love of water is a gift for life, play and have fun, even in the bath. There are lots of books and DVDs with ideas of water games to help your little one enjoy and be comfortable in water. You will be the expert with your baby and make your own games together!

Paula Hickman is an ASA Swim Teacher and Specialist Infant aquatics educator. Her Manchester based company, Enjoy Swimming, offers water confidence classes for pregnant mums and 0-3 year olds:

The Birthlight Trust runs classes and training for swim teachers:
The Swimming Teachers Association:
The Amateur Swimming Association: offer further information on qualifications and training
The Royal Society for the Protection of Accidents: offers advice on water safety