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Teaching your child to swim can begin way before the actual swimming part.
A child might be 6 years old before having the fine motor skills needed for swimming lessons, but the Helen P. Brown Natatorium and YMCA branches offer interactive water classes starting as early as 6 months old to acclimate infants to the water.
"Everybody has an opinion on when is the best time to begin," says Liz Caywood, director of the natatorium. "At 6 months, they don't have the motor skills at this point, but it's certainly a good idea to get the child used to the water as early as possible."
Here are a few tips from Caywood and other instructors for parents ready to take the splash with their young ones:
Parents can get a little nervous about their children hopping into swimming pools, especially if they don't have a great relationship with swimming themselves. Make it a priority to have fun throughout the process.
Scott Monnett, executive director of the YMCA Parkview branch, says its baby and preschooler classes emphasize the importance of interaction.
"You have to have fun for the kids, because it's a different experience. You get to act a little bit like a kid yourself, blowing bubbles and splashing around," Monnett says. "If parents aren't relaxed and ready to have fun, the kids won't relax and have fun, either."
Take it slow
If your child is apprehensive, don't force it, says Jill Toennis, an American Red Cross aquatic specialist for Indiana and western Kentucky. Some children who may not like floating on their back or going underwater should be eased into it. Have them blow bubbles in the water during bath time. It also reinforces how to breathe while swimming.
Even with substantial progress, don't overestimate your child's ability.
"You need to teach them to have a healthy respect for the water," Toennis says. "It's fun to be in the water, but they need to know the safety side. They don't get in the water until given permission or a cue, like `ready, set, go.' "
Inflatable "floaties" and swimming noodles can be fun, but they are not lifesavers. Caywood says to use flotation devices sparingly so that young children understand they can't swim without your help. When you do introduce flotation devices, make sure life jackets and vests, child-friendly puddle jumpers and other personal flotation devices are U.S. Coast Guard-approved.
"There are a lot of great programs in Fort Wayne. We have recreational swimming and staff available who will show you how to hold your kids and how to work with them," Caywood says.
"Even if you don't take swimming lessons, just getting them in the water and spending time with them gives them the exposure that they can't necessarily do it on their own yet."