Sat, Mar 07, 2009 - Page 16 News List

It's not about the bathwater

Swimming classes for babies offer more than just health benefits. They’re also a great way for parents to bond with their children

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

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Learning to swim is, for many children, one of the key steps of growing up. It is widely accepted that swimming is a useful skill to acquire, like riding a bike, but in the eyes of some parenting professionals, it is very much more than that. Sally Lomas, an instructor with the UK-based group Birthlight who was in Taiwan last week to conduct instructor certification classes for the Birthlight program, believes learning how to swim it is invaluable for more than just the health benefits.

"It helps build a bond of trust between the parents and the child," she said, keeping an eye on a class made up of young mothers, fitness instructors and healthcare professionals, some working with their own babies, others with baby manikins, who are learning the Birthlight technique of handling infants for activities such as swimming and yoga.

While both swimming and yoga might be easily associated with children of a slightly older age, Birthlight believes the essential qualities can be taught through these activities even with the youngest of infants.

With the breakup of the extended family, Lomas said, many young parents simply have no experience of handling children, especially the very young. Birthlight’s infant aqua program aims not just to get children comfortable in an aquatic environment, but also to allow parents and children to interact physically as they enter a new world of experience together.

In the training pool of the National Taiwan Normal University, Diana Chendana, a certified Birthlight instructor, spends much of her time reassuring nervous parents. "It is as much about teaching parents as it is about teaching children," she said. "In our modern world, kids are getting less and less physical contact with the parent. Kids get up and play with their toys. When they go out, they are in the car seat. Or they are pushed in a stroller. There isn't much physical contact and interaction," she said.

For teachers like Lomas and Chendana, the actual swimming is a byproduct of something much more important that can be developed between parent and child.

Birthlight is the creation of Francoise Freedman, and was based on her experience doing anthropological fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest, where she had the chance to observe the close relationship between Amazonian Indians and their children in the forests and rivers that were their home. Lomas, an active birth instructor back in 1960s Britain, a time when the movement away from highly regimented forms of childrearing began to gather momentum, discovered Birthlight after she had children of her own and was looking for suitable ways of introducing them to the water.

Chendana, a keen swimmer and yoga practitioner who moved to Taipei four years ago, discovered Birthlight online, and having now qualified as an instructor, has been teaching professionally since last summer. "There is quite a lot of interest, both online, and through word of mouth," she said.

Interaction between parent and child is what drew her to Birthlight, and she reacted with horror at a story from one of her students, who had formerly been based in China, who told of classes in which the children learned to swim purely through the medium of an instructor, the parents watching from the poolside.

"Some parents do not know how to interact with their kids. They just keep buying toys … Kids get bored of toys, but if you play with them together, swinging them, moving with them, they will never get bored. You may get tired, but they will not get bored," Chendana said.

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