8 Tips on Teaching Your Child to Swim (from a certified swim instructor)

Yes, yes, there are actually 8 tips here.
I added one after I made this pinterest bait.
The pools opened last weekend, and my newsfeed was flooded with articles about drowning (and secondary drowning). I don’t want to go into it because it’s a huge trigger for me, and that’s not the point of this blog anyway. What I want to do here is give you a few pointers on teaching your kiddos to swim.

Who am I – singer, songwriter, traveler and accordion player  – to give you  any advice about swimming? I also happen to have been a Red Cross certified Water Safety Instructor since 1997, and I’ve taught swim lessons most seasons since then. It’s not my main gig (that’s traveling, singing, recording, teaching piano, and being a mom), but it’s a gig I love. Swimming is not just a summer diversion, but it’s an important life skill that everyone should have, and I’m happy to know that I’ve taught thousands of people.

I admit that some of my teaching philosophy has changed since I became a parent, but most of the basics have remained the same. Here are some tips for teaching your child/baby/toddler how to swim:

1.    Get your hair wet. This is probably the biggest tip of all. If you don’t go underwater, how do you expect your kid to go underwater? If you don’t want to mess up your blowout (as if you actually had time to get a blowout – though if you did, I totally understand not wanting to mess it up!), don’t go swimming that day. Your child needs to see you blowing bubbles, floating on your back, doing arm circles, having an underwater tea party, and smiling about it. This is your chance to get your toddler to copy something good, and not just copying your four-letter words. My kiddo LOVES to push me underwater. Even when I really don’t want to get wet, I go underwater and attempt to smile about it. How is it fair to tell your kid she has to go underwater at her swim lesson if her parents don’t do it?

2.    Take a parent/child class. These classes are designed to be fun, not teach your child Olympic skills. You’ll sing songs, you’ll blow bubbles, you’ll play with toys. You’ll also learn techniques you can use to teach your child when you are not in class. Don’t expect your infant/toddler to actually learn to swim during these classes, but trust that they are helping acclimate your child to the pool --- to both its fun and its dangers. There’s also usually at least one kid in the class who goes underwater and loves it, and you want your child to see that kid having fun.

3.    Swim often. The best way to learn to swim? Go to the pool as often as you can. If your swim class is only once a week, go another day (or four) and “practice” in a less structured environment. Swimming is muscle memory, so give those muscles an opportunity to remember.

11-month-old swimming.
August 2013.
4.    Don’t let go. Take your child in water where he cannot stand up, but YOU can. Hold on to your kiddo, and tell him you aren’t going to let go unless he says it’s okay. Develop this trust, and stick to it.

5.    Let go. Got a splash pool where your child can stand up and have free reign of the pool? Great. Let him roam, explore, even fall down. Don’t hover, but don’t get too far away that you can’t grab him if he slips under. If he falls down and can’t get his footing enough to stand up again (all that baby fat is buoyant!), pick him up, and don’t act terrified. Be proud that your little one went underwater, and talk about all the different feelings he may have had. “Your eyes feel funny!” “Your hair is wet!” “Was that surprising?” (Try to avoid “scary.”) I like to act very happy and give lots of claps and assurances.

6.    Blow bubbles. Bubbles are the key to swimming. I like to sing “Ring Around the Rosies/Pocket full of posies/ Splashes, splashes/ we all blow bubbles!” My kiddo screams for “Ring Rosies!” every time we get near the water.

7.    Get in the pool first. This is a safety tip. Always get in the pool before your child, and tell him he must wait until his adult is in the water before he gets in. The idea is that this will prevent him jumping in the pool unsupervised.

8.    Avoid floaties. Arm-floaties. Puddle-jumpers. Lifejackets (unless you are boating!). Are you rolling your eyes? I saved this for last because I thought you might scoff. As a parent, I totally get wanting to lay out by the pool, grab a few moments of solitude, and know that your kid isn’t going to sink. As a swim instructor, I’ll tell you that floaties do multiple things that hinder your child’s swim skills. They give a false sense of security. They prevent your child from learning what it actually feels like to float. But more annoying and challenging is that they teach the child to kick incorrectly – like she is pedaling a bike rather than the nice straight-legged kick that moves you through the water efficiently. It’s really tricky to unlearn the bicycle kick that develops when your kid is used to wearing floaties. Floaties also prevent their faces from getting wet, and almost every child I’ve taught who was a floatie-kid can’t stand putting his face under water. Your child will learn to swim a lot more quickly if you can avoid the floaties. 

Here's a video of my wee boy 'swimming' to grandma and back last summer. By the end of the season, he would kick underwater about 4-5 feet to us or to the wall. He is 11 months old in this video.

Check back my other post on specific tips on practicing swimming techniques with your little ones at home. There are plenty of skills that can be practiced in the bathtub., and I’ve got a list going for you.


  1. Love it! We've taught all four of ours to swim like in your video by the time they were a year, and all have been proficient enough to be flinging themselves off the diving boards the summers they were 3-3.5, but still with a healthy understanding of water safety rules. Seems so much easier to teach when they're tiny than after they've developed a fear of going under, and it's such an important thing for them to know, too.