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Can infants hold their breath in the water? Should you test out the theory?


Coach Kenneth Rippetoe


Children and Parenting

Kenneth is the founder and head coach of One with the Water, a nonprofit swim school that offers need-based scholarships to children with special needs, adults, low-income families, and service-disabled Veterans. He is a certified US Paralympic Disabilities Swim Coach and a strength and conditioning coach.

There's a controversial swimming technique being circulated on the internet that implies that infants as young as 6 months old have an innate ability to swim if thrown in a pool. Though babies have some innate instincts to move their bodies in a swimming motion, that doesn't mean that they can swim, or that this is safe. Is this a safe or advisable way to teach babies to swim?


As a swim coach of over thirty years, I strongly advise against this technique as a way to teach children to swim. Besides the obvious safety reasons, an adverse event in the water at this age can create a tremendous phobia and potentially prevent someone from ever learning the lifesaving skill of swimming.


From your perspective, where does this come from? What is the logic behind this working? Why might that be wrong? This technique comes from the fact that infants up to six months will instinctively hold their breath when their head is submerged under water. It’s called the Bradycardic reflex, part of the mammalian diving reflex. Essentially, when immersed cold water, an infant's heart rate will slow to conserve oxygen and maintain blood flow to vital areas. This in turn causes the child to instinctively hold their breath.


Are there any scenarios where it may be OK to try this? Unequivocally no.


What alternative ways can parents protect kids from drowning? I don’t recommend just tossing your baby underwater, or dunking them without warning, but infants can and should be acclimated to the water, taking advantage of the reflexes they are born with. (They did find that it still exist in infants up to 1 year, but it decreases significantly after six months.) Experts recommend gently pouring water over their forehead to get them used to the water. There are different ways to do this, between the bathtub and the pool, but the key is gently. (And remember, NEVER leave an infant unattended in the bathtub or any other source of water, no matter how comfortable they may be.)


At One with the Water, we are passionate about the science behind our coaching methods. We know that when the forehead is stimulated, kids tend to hold their breath. We use the bradycardic reflex to help them with their comfort level in the water. For swim lessons, we start conditioning them before we pour the water on their head, teaching kids/infants about the “Cue Word”/Command. This way, the children are conditioned to hold their breath and close their eyes when they hear the cue words. This lays the foundation for teaching the child the necessary skills to be safe in the water.


Overall, is it accurate to say that it is not safe for parents to try this at home? What about from someone who claims to be a trained professional? NO. Again, water can be introduced gently by pouring over the forehead in a safe, controlled environment. Look for coaches and programs whose goal isn’t just drowning prevention and water safety, but to instill in a child a life-long sense of empowerment, confidence, and success in the water. 

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