Last updated on Feb 1st, 2021 at 01:36 pm

Keen to enrol your child in swimming lessons but not sure when to start? Or, are you wondering how to get your anxious child to be more comfortable in the water? Johannesburg-based certified swimming instructor, Gemma-Leigh Evans shares her top swimming safety tips, and answers your most pressing questions.

When is the best time to start swimming lessons?  

“We start swimming lessons with babies from about 6 months of age,” says Gemma. “If you’re wondering when to enrol your little one, the general rule of thumb is that your child should be able to support his own head prior to starting lessons. At this age, the aim is not to teach him how to swim, but to get him used to the water (so he’s not afraid of it) and to encourage him to be comfortable swimming with an instructor, as well as yourself or your partner. This will help to prepare your baby for toddler lessons later.”

ALSO SEE: Your top 6 baby swimming questions answered

My child is too afraid to get in the water. What can I do to ease his anxiety?

“Firstly, it’s quite normal for children to be anxious at their first swimming lesson. As parents we often warn our children against the dangers of water, as well as the dangers of talking to strangers, yet when their first swimming lesson arrives, you put them in a pool with a stranger and expect them to be okay,” explains Gemma.

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“The truth is, it will take time for your child to get used to swimming lessons. But, the good news is, your child’s swimming instructor will work hard to gain your child’s trust and build the right foundation for successful swimming lessons. If your child is very anxious in the water, it’s a good idea to work with the instructor and help your child get used to the water,” adds Gemma.

Try these steps:

  1. Start with turning bath time into a fun experience by using cups, sieves and funnels to play with water, or a watering can, to drop water gently over his head.
  2. When you’re ready to transition to the pool, allow your child to play by the step with only his feet dangling in the water.
  3. Once he’s comfortable with this, move him onto the next step, where his feet can touch the floor and carry on until you have successfully managed to acclimatise your child to the water. The aim is to get him to the point where he’s comfortable to play and learn in the water.

A word of warning: If your child shows any signs of fear or anxiety in the bath or pool, it’s important to be patient and take a step back, rather than a step forward. If your child appears traumatised, seek the advice or assistance of a trained, experienced professional.

What are some non-negotiable swimming safety strategies instructors implement at swimming lessons?

  • “All swimming instructors must hold a valid first aid and CPR certificate. They also need to be competent swimmers equipped with the essential rescue capabilities deemed necessary for the environment in which they teach,” says Gemma. “Instructors are required to continually assess the environment for any dangers or hazard to prevent any unfortunate incidents from occurring, and it’s the instructor’s job to watch your child at all times.”
  • Children shouldn’t be allowed in the water without their instructor’s permission, whether you’re at the lesson or not. “This is because many parents don’t, in fact know how to swim or how to help their child should an unexpected emergency occur,” says Gemma. “Children should always be supervised in the water regardless of their swimming abilities, as no one is completely safe from the risk of drowning.”
  • Additionally, you should find a swim school that has the right number of children in a class, especially if your child is just learning to swim. Gemma says that the teacher to student ratio should not exceed 1 to 4.

Is there any swimming equipment I should avoid for my child?

“I personally don’t like the Polyotter type float-suits,” says Gemma. “My reason for this is twofold: Firstly, buoyancy is centred around the waist area. Should your child for whatever reason tip over into the water, he could drown due to his inability to return to an upright position. Secondly, children don’t readily distinguish the difference between the Polyotter-type float suit and a normal swimsuit. This raises the risk of your child being too confident in the water with a normal swimsuit on. He might assume he can swim because he’s always stayed afloat before (in the Polyotter-type suit), but today, in his normal spiderman costume, he suddenly discovers, after jumping in, that he can’t float and you might not be around to help. This is how accidents happen,” she warns.

Gemma says arm bands and other general floatation devices which sit higher up on your child’s body, making him bottom heavy and unable to tip forwards or upside down, are okay.

If your child’s eyes are sensitive to chemicals or salt in the water, goggles are fine, but your child should also get used to looking underwater without them.

Should I “dunk” my baby or toddler underwater to get him used to swimming?

Gemma says, when in doubt, leave this to a professional. If your child is screaming and panicking at the prospect of going under water, then avoid dunking him at all costs. Your child’s swimming instructor should also steer clear of this as it could break trust and simply instil fear of the water.

“The best thing to do is let your child decide when he’s ready to put his head under,” advises Gemma. In the meantime, encourage him to feel comfortable in the water through play. For example, you can help him wash your face, then his, or you can splash each other, blow bubbles, talk to his toys (or imaginary fish) under the water; or listen to his toys “talk back” by submerging each ear in the water.

This will help to slowly build your child’s confidence levels and comfort in water.

Open water safety tips

If you’re heading out to the ocean, a dam, lake, lagoon or river with the family, here are some non-negotiable safety tips to take note of:

  • Both children and adults should always wear life jackets or floating devices in open water.
  • Never let your children swim alone. There should always be someone on duty. Letting your children swim with others in the water doesn’t count, as there’s no guarantee anyone will notice, should something go wrong. Children should always be accompanied by an adult who’s specifically keeping an eye on them.
  • Never turn your back on your children when they’re swimming in open water, whether they’re wearing a life jacket or not!
  • If your child can’t swim, avoid letting them swim in open water altogether
  • If you can’t swim but your child can, and you have had CPR training (watching it in movies doesn’t count), don’t allow your children to swim in open water unless there’s a lifeguard on duty.

ALSO SEE: 7 must-know beach safety facts

More about the expert

Gemma Leigh Evans is a Johannesburg-based swimming instructor with many years’ experience with both children and adults. She gives swimming lessons at Swimsational, Aquativity and Virgin Active in Kyalami.  She’s extremely passionate about teaching people the important life skill that is swimming.  For more info visit