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Aug 3 / Caro

Baby Swimming

For the past couple of months, I’ve been taking Thomas swimming once a week. We’re very lucky to have a decent public swimming pool just a few short minutes walk away, and it has an open session (i.e. no lessons, school groups etc) in the warm, shallow teaching pool at an ideal time for us. For the most part, he has been loving it.

But this is not the beginning of our swimming story. For that, we need to go right back to when he was born.

I’ve always been fixated on making sure that Thomas was exposed to swimming as early as possible. This is because Ian has an extreme water phobia. Despite years of lessons, he can’t swim. Being in more water than a bath full terrifies him, and if it’s any deeper than his knees, you’ll find him hanging on for grim death, as if at any moment he will be swallowed up by a tidal wave or unidentified sea monster. I’m not mocking. Just trying to convey the gravity of his fear. I’ve seen how much it disrupts his life at times. (And mine if we’re honest. A honeymoon in the Maldives was never going to happen!)

So I put Thomas’s name down for lessons at the aforementioned public swimming pool as soon as he was born. I made sure to be clear which days I was looking for as I already knew which days I would be returning for work. No problem.

Except, when it came to it, at around 12 weeks of age, they got back to me and pointed out that they don’t offer mother and baby sessions on those days. And this came with terrible timing, since all the local private swimming groups were just beginning their new terms.

So I had a mad scramble to try and secure a place on an appropriate course. I had to swallow the ridiculous expense of it, because swimming was so important to me. The bigger difficulty was the fact that all of these courses were held in private swimming pools which were nigh on impossible to access using public transport. And I don’t drive.

As luck would have it, a neighbour and friend, whose little boy is two weeks older than Thomas, was joining one such class and would be able to offer me a lift. This is where my relationship with Waterbabies began, and it didn’t get off to the greatest start.

The lady I spoke to on the phone was initially helpful and understanding of my non-driving and desire to attend the same group as my friend. She said it shouldn’t be a problem, and she would get back to me. My friend attended her first session, which wasn’t full. I rang again to see what was going on. They would get back to me, they promised. When a few more days passed, I rang again. Gone was the helpful attitude and now I was met with “Our next term doesn’t start until May. We have said we will call you when we release the beginners spaces. You can’t join a course having missed the first session.”

By this time it was definitely decidedly too late join any of the other local groups, so I was resigned to waiting it out until May. I laugh now to look back, but I was too frightened to take him myself, since I obviously couldn’t have the support of my husband. I was worried about not knowing what I should do with him, and worried about dropping him in the water, or ending up creating a fear instead of preventing one.

We eventually joined a Waterbabies class when Thomas was just over six months old. It was good to feel supported, and to learn some techniques to use in the water, and of course it was wonderful to watch my little boy “swimming” under water.

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But beneath the gloss, I can’t say I was ever truly happy with Waterbabies.

For starters, it was really difficult for me to get there. My mum would sometimes come over specifically to take us to the 30 minute class. But most often I had to get a taxi there and then back, or alternatively wait for the friend whose class I had initially wanted to join to finish her class and drive us home. The timing was awkward too, as the class fell at the exact time that Thomas was most likely to nap. Since he was a terrible napper, this was a big deal, as it meant he sometimes didn’t nap at all, which had a knock on effect to the night. But there were no alternative times available.

I was irritated early on by the fact that one mum missed the first week (so much for not joining a class late) and another merely watched from the side (for at least two weeks) as her baby was too small to go in the water (something to do with the temperature of the water). And, although this is obviously not Waterbabies fault, I was unfortunate in that the other mums in my group mostly already knew one another (their babies were all 3 months younger than Thomas) and seemed quite stand offish, whereas I was keen to make new friends.

The trouble is, Waterbabies is in no way cheap. Ringing it at almost £15 a lesson, you want to get your money’s worth. A single week missed through illness or holiday felt like a huge waste of money too.

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Nevertheless, we persisted, because I was so determined to give Thomas a solid foundation for a positive relationship with water. And, he really loved it, kicking and splashing excitedly and keen to join in all the games and tasks.

By our third term, though, things began to change. He started to cry frequently (possibly tiredness didn’t help), did not want to go under the water and mostly clung to me for the entire thirty minutes. Given that he isn’t a clingy child at all, this was very out of character. I kept being told that it was just “water wobbles”, that all babies go through it and we just needed to keep going. It’s hard to keep turning up with a child who is plainly telling you they don’t want to do something, though. And hard to simply stand in the water with them for thirty minutes because they don’t want to take part. And then, despite paying a lot of money for expert tuition and support, being told you may as well just “do your own thing”.

We decided to do just that, but at the local pool instead. But once I informed them of my intention to cancel, we were suddenly offered a whole load of alternatives that hadn’t been open before. I was invited to join my friend’s class – a whole level up – to solve my transport issues. Then we were both offered an even higher level (mostly two and a half year olds) because the time fitted in with naps better. I did appreciate the gesture, but I felt it came a little too late, when I would have preferred to be offered those options right at the beginning. Thomas would have started 3 months sooner (and hopefully had 3 more months before the wobbles set in) and I would have saved a fortune on taxi fares. It seemed a bit like now they were going to lose my money, they would be accommodating, but missing the very first session of term right back at the start had been something that was impossible for them to work round.

Now that we’ve started going swimming again and Thomas is really enjoying it, I’ve also worked something else out. The rigid structure of those lessons really didn’t suit him. My son a very typical strong-willed and independent toddler. The way to get him to do things is to make it seem like you’re not all that fussed about getting it done. He thrives at our regular music class because he is free to roam as well as participate and, I’m sure, feels like he is control. I understand that swimming classes, for safety as much as anything else, need structure, but Thomas is doing a lot better now we can do what we want in the water.

I plan to try taking Thomas back to more formal lessons when he is a bit older, but for now he is enjoying the water. And that’s all I ever wanted.

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