How To Teach A Toddler To Swim | What Worked For Our Family!

As parents of a toddler, we’ve heard from so many friends and family members how important it is for little ones to get comfort in the water at an early age. The thinking goes when kids get past the baby and toddler stage, they become more fearful of water and in turn it is MUCH HARDER to teach them to swim! We hope sharing what worked for our family may help you!

Disclaimer: We are not lifeguards, swim instructions, or even good swimmers ourselves! This is a personal account of what work for our family; we are not responsible for you or your families. Please be safe and work with trained teachers if you’re not comfortable in the water yourself.

Why Teach Babies and Toddlers How To Swim?

  • Safety: Sadly around 350 kids under the age of 5 die each year from drowning. Swimming lessons can help it so your kiddo can be safe in and around water.
  • Easier to learn when younger: The ages of 0-3 are truly miraculous. Our kiddos are learning machines and can pick up new skills quickly. They also haven’t developed the rationale fear of water that most older kids have.
  • Bonding: Swimming with your little one helps further build that parent-child bond. Being in the water with your little one and helping them learn and overcome fears and challenges provides amazing bonding opportunities.
  • Fun: Our son has a look of pure joy when he gets in the pool and splashes around. It is tons of fun for both parent and child.
  • Builds Confidence: Learning something new and overcoming obstacles is the stuff that confidence building is made of!

Our Journey Teaching Our Son How To Swim

The question of how to teach a toddler to swim is one we thought a lot about. You may have heard of the Infant Swimming Resources (ISR) Self-Rescue method or seen the videos where a child is essentially thrown into water. From there they are taught to safely float to their back. This method just felt a bit too extreme for us and we couldn’t picture doing this to our son. I haven’t done the research to know to know if this is an amazing technique but either way it just didn’t feel right for our family. We wanted something that taught safety and the foundations of how to swim while still being a lot of fun.

Finding The Swimming Lessons That Worked For Us

Luckily we found a school that was a great fit and enrolled at an absolutely fantastic swim school called Foss. They have locations in Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Seriously Foss is the best and can’t think there is a better swim school in the entire nation. It’s not cheap but they get results and the kids love it.

Our son cried his eyes out the entire first lesson. He just hated being in the water and clung to me for dear life! But by lesson two he was a bit better. And now (about 25 lessons later) he is doing all sorts of amazing things… it’s incredible how fast our little ones can learn and adapt.

Before explaining our top tips for teaching a toddler how to swim let’s talk about some goals we had when starting with swimming lessons.

Goals of Infant and Toddler Swim Lessons

  • Increased water comfort: A huge part of infant and toddler swimming lessons is just feeling comfortable being in the pool
  • Safety: Learning how to float, how to hold onto the wall, how to climb out of the pool, and more helps kiddos learn how to be safe in a pool.
  • Setting a foundation: Learning to be safe and comfortable in water, learning how to float, and learning some key movements in the water builds a strong foundation for future swimming progression

It’s important to remember each kid is different. Some kids take to swimming right away and progress quickly. Others take more time to warm up. Follow your child to help her become the best version of herself in the pool. Pushing or pressuring will likely have the opposite effect you are hoping for. Taking it slow, have fun, and follow your child. With that said, here are the steps we followed for how to teach a toddler to swim!

How To Teach A Toddler To Swim | The 11 Steps That Worked For Our Family

Most of our steps noted below are the key things we observed working really well at Foss Swim School. If you have a Foss in your area we’d encourage you to check it out. If you want to go it alone because you don’t have the budget or access to swim lessons we hope you find these steps helpful!

And as always remember safety is the most important thing. Never leave your child unattended in or near water and please use common sense and caution anytime you are in the water with your little one. Note on all steps you, the adult, are right there with your hands on the child. Everything we noted below is assisted by an adult. The child is never on their own doing these steps!

Step 1: Laughter & Initial Water Comfort

  • Goal: Get your child smiling, laughing, and overall feeling comfortable in the water.
  • How?: Singing songs and splashing. In particular we loved singing songs saying “this is the way we wash our hands/monkey cheeks/hair/etc” and pouring water from a small plastic cup.

Step 2: Wheels on the Bus

  • Goal: Continue the fun while introducing some swimming movements.
  • How?: Singing Wheels on the bus is a great way to keep the fun going AND introduce some swim strokes. Get your toddler to be comfortable back.

Step 3: Backfloat

  • Goal: Help your toddler be comfortable floating on her back.
    • Why? Learning to float on your back is hugely important for swimming safety. For one, it’s easier to breath on our backs than it is floating on our tummy. And further, we can call out for help more easily when on our back. The backfloat is so important and should be a part of each practice.
  • How?: Start slowly and place your kiddo’s head on your shoulder. Do this for a few seconds. We often count bananas while back floating… one banana, two banana, three banana four!. Your child may squirm for the first few practices but eventually they’ll get more comfortable floating on their back. If there are fun things to look at on the pool ceiling it is helpful to point these out! Once you kiddo is comfortable on your shoulder, you can extend her out from your body and float her with one water under head/neck and one hand under back.

Step 4: Humpty Dumpty

  • Goal: Comfort going off side of pool, learning to swim back to the wall, and learning how to pull up to safety.
  • How?: Sing Humpty Dumpty… at the end of the short verse you count down “3, 2, 1” and have the child fall forward into the water. Once in the water you want them to “kick and scoop” and start returning to the wall (teaching them to head back to the wall if they were to fall). This is also your chance to begin teaching how to safety exit the pool. Remember the phrase ‘elbow, elbow, knee, knee‘. A child should first get one elbow up, then other other, and then squeeze so they can get the first knee up and then the other. Your kiddo will need assistance with this and that is normal and expected. The goal is to begin teaching them how to safety exit the pool.

Step 5: Monkey Cheeks!

  • Goal: Preparing your child to independently submerge her face; learning to bring air into the body and close mouth.
  • How: Imagine blowing up your cheeks with air. Calling them “monkey cheeks” is a simple and fun way to teach this to kids. Have them practice making monkey cheeks. This feels silly and may generate some laughs which is great. And it’s teaching how to hold air and keep the mouth shut which is important when going under water which will come later on.

Step 6: Blowing Bubbles

  • Goal: Comfort with voluntarily putting her face in the water. Setting foundation for future strokes where face goes into water and back out.
  • How: Simply blow bubbles in the water. Stress it is not okay to drink the pool water as it can make for an upset tummy!

Step 7: London Bridges

  • Goal: Comfort with voluntarily putting her face in the water.
  • How?: This one is best done with a partner. Assist your child swimming in a circle while singing London Bridges. Have your partner hold a pool noodle (like this) and when going under the bridge put your child’s face in the water. If this is too much for your child you can have your partner hold a bucket and pour a small bit of water down when going under the bridge. The ultimate goal is for your child to do monkey cheeks, hide her eyes, and put her face in the water while going under the bridge. Fair warning: this one takes some time for most kiddos!

Step 8: Monkey Walks

  • Goal: Learning to hold onto the wall and move
  • How?: Show you child how to hold the side of the pool and move her hands so she can get from one spot to another. We call this the monkey walk. This exercise is important for safety as your little one learns how to hold onto the wall.

Step 9: Motorcycle Swims

  • Goal: Learning proper swim position and learning to move through the water by kicking and scooping
  • How: This is the only step where any sort of flotation item is used. In general we learned using arm floaties or life jackets are not helping in learning to swim. A barbell float (like this) though is super helpful as it promotes the right position and helps learn how to float. Further the child can “kick and scoop” while using. The bar should be placed under the armpit so the hands and arms can move. Have the child throw a float toy (like this) and swim to it by kicking and scooping. At the start you’ll mainly be guiding them through the water but in time they’ll start using their arms and legs.

Step 10: Blastoffs

  • Goal: Comfort on back, comfort moving through water while on back, learning to roll to tummy from back
  • How?: Ever watched the Olympics and see how the backstroker swimmers start? They are crouched up, knees to chest, and then use their legs to push off the wall. Well that is essentially what a blastoff is. The difference is that the parent is in the water holding the child at all times. This is a great next step after gaining comfort just floating on the back.

Step 11: Zooms

  • Goal: Gaining more comfort with submersion. Gaining comfort moving through the water.
  • How?: A zoom is essentially pushing your child underwater from one person to another. This is often done after your child is showing comfort in the water, can do money cheeks, and is starting to put her face in the water. With one hand on the back of the neck and one hand under the torso you “zoom” your kiddo under water to your partner. This one felt so scary at first and I thought our little guy would lose his mind. But after doing it a few times he did great. Remember to stress monkey cheeks and closing the mouth before going under.

How To Teach A Toddler To Swim | Summing It Up

So there you have it. Those are the main steps that worked like magic for getting our little guy comfortable in the pool. These exercises are a lot of fun, help build a great foundation for future swimming lessons, and help your child become start to become safer in water. Please remember to be safe, follow your child, and have fun. Every child is different; some will move through these steps quickly and others will take a long time. Either way is okay. The important thing is your are helping your child learn to be safe and comfortable in water which truly is a lifelong gift!

We know many of you still have more questions so we added a few of the most common ones below.

FAQs | How To Teach A Toddler To Swim Common Questions

Q: Are infant swim lessons or a toddler swim lessons a good idea?
A: We think they are awesome and the earlier you can start the better! Each family has different priorities and financial resources. If you can’t afford infant swim lessons or toddler swim lessons you can try some of the steps noted above. And again, if you’re near a Foss Swim School please check them out as they are fantastic!

Q: At what age is it worth it to start infant swim lessons?
A: We have observed kids as young as six or seven months show comfort and joy in the pool

Q: Do I need a special swim diaper?
A: Yes! While there are disposable swim diapers like these we strongly suggest a reusable swim diaper. Many pools require reusable swim diapers as they hold in any accidents better. Plus they are more environmentally friendly and save money compared to always buying disposable. This is the swim diaper we purchased for our little guy; it has worked really well and it lasts a long time given the adjustable snaps.

Q: What other items do I need to teach my toddler how to swim?
A: A swimsuit, swim diaper, swim float barbellΒ and float toys. The swimsuit and swim diaper are pretty obvious as to why you need them. πŸ˜„ The swim float barbell is so so important too. We learned arm floaties and life jackets do not help promote proper swim positioning and become a crutch for many kids. The swim barbell is great though as your little one can be in the proper position and practice kicking with her legs and scooping with her arms. This is helping teach flotation and building a base of learning her first swimming stroke. The float toys are great too as it kids your kiddo something to swim to.

Q: We are Mommy and me swim classes?
A: Mommy and me swim classes are a type of swim classes where a group of adults (often moms) will get together to help get their little ones comfortable with the water and also learn/implement water safety best practices. We’v never done them so can’t share our opinion.

Q: How long should we plan to be in the water?
A: Each session should be no more than 30 minutes. Attention spans are often quite short for toddlers. Make it short and sweet and take your time. Over the course of a few weeks you’ll see progression.

How’s your infant or toddler swimming journey going? Drop a comment below with what is working (or not working!) for you and your kiddo!Β 

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