Tips to Ease Your Child’s Fear of Swimming

Illustration by Deana Halsall

At seven months of age, Alexandra Pearce’s son loved mom-and-tot swim class. “He enjoyed splashing, chasing rubber duckies with my help, even putting his entire head underwater! I thought for sure he would be a water baby (forever),” says the Toronto mom of two. Everything changed when he hit preschool age, however. “At four, he took his first swim class without me and was very hesitant. He didn’t like it when the other children splashed and he certainly had no intention of getting his face wet,” recalls Pearce.

Out of Their Depth
Such complaints are fairly common for this age group, say experts. But overcoming them is key. “Every three- to five-year-old should take swimming lessons. It’s a more important life skill than some other sports—it could save their life. It takes 30 seconds for a child to drown; swimming lessons can help prevent this,” says Maryam Mohseni, aquatics coordinator at the YMCA of Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia. But what can you do if your kid refuses to take a dip?

First, relax. Most pool-averse preschoolers overcome their misgivings at their own pace. There are few instances of aquaphobia in children, says Dr. Susan Hunt, a registered psychologist who works with children and adults in Maple Ridge, B.C. “Aquaphobia is an intense fear that would be outside their voluntary control, and a parent would likely notice. Children with a normal fear of swimming say things like ‘I don’t want to go swimming,’ or they may cry, while a child with aquaphobia may have panic attacks around water, which can include excessive crying or tantrums, freezing, clinging and avoiding all pools,” says Hunt. They may or may not also fear bathing. Common pool fears can be conquered and treated, adds Hunt, who recommends aquaphobic children see a psychologist or pediatrician to learn various tools to cope with their fear.

Coping with Complaints
Kids can pick up on a parent’s anxiety around water. So parents should model positive verbal and nonverbal behaviour to their child regarding pool activity, says Hunt. Take your preschooler to the rec centre for family swims (they’re less hectic than open swims) and get in the water together. “Just focus on fun, not skills,” says Hunt. “Don’t push them. Encourage a slow, gradual, positive exposure to water.” Additionally, here are tips for dealing with common fears:

Fear of entering the water

  • Be patient, and sign him up for swimming lessons.
  • Have fun in the water. Stand in the shallow end, sit your child on the pool ledge—wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), if he prefers—and float a ball or boat back and forth until he’s ready to get wet.
  • Offer specific praise, says Mohseni: “For example, as your child starts entering the pool, stair by stair, congratulate him on each step.”

Fear of getting his face wet

  • Use lots of praise and stick with swimming lessons.
  • Try distraction, suggests Mohseni: “One game we play is ‘shampoo.’ Pat some water on your cheeks and then get him to copy you. Next, scoop water over your head to wet it, and then pretend to lather it. Finally, to ‘rinse,’ duck your head underwater and see if he’ll do it too. Or you can use a plastic watering can or cup to ‘shower.’”

Fear of being in deep water

  • Again, be patient, offer praise and continue swimming lessons.
  • “See if he’ll swim with you while wearing a life jacket,” says Mohseni. Tread water a few metres from the edge of the pool, and get your child to kick off the wall toward you. “Initially, he may get scared because he’ll sink a little after that initial boost, so offer lots of praise,” advises Mohseni. Make sure your child knows the importance of wearing a PFD until he is able to swim in deep water independently.

Wade It Out
Pearce’s son, now five, lives for his Friday-night swim class. A cottage getaway last summer sealed the deal. “He experimented with floaty dinosaurs, rings and life jackets and just puttered around in the water. By the third or fourth day, he was doggy paddling around the floating dock,” reports Pearce. “Having a solid week of swimming with no pressure really helped him build his confidence.”

Looking for more information about swimming? Check this out:
Infant Swimming Resource: What You Should Know
5 Tips for Keeping Kids Safe at the Water Park
Preventing Accidents in the Water

2 responses to “Tips to Ease Your Child’s Fear of Swimming”

  1. Jason Kendal says:

    Great article. We run a program in York region in Toronto called Kendal Aquatics and always tell clients that it is extremely important to introduce students to swim lessons at a young age. I have several additional helpful hints:
    1. have the student pick out their favorite bathing suit, toy or goggles to bring with to swim lessons
    2. Set goals with a student and as the student achieves the milestones, reward them with a present (it can be as small as a snack or a game in the water).
    3. when a student cries it is often harder on the parent than it is on the student. When you see your child crying, tell yourself that this is a life skill and they MUST learn how to swim to survive in the water.
    4. never give in to a child’s demands (i.e. if student is crying, do not take them out of the water until they stop) or they will have the upper hand.
    For more on Kendal Aquatics visit us at kendalaquatics.com

  2. Karen Aubury says:

    My 7yr daughter has had swimming lessons since last year and has been doing really well up until they moved to deep end of pool!! She swam frontcrawl a full length of pool 25mtrs but following wk after doing it twice with float when she went 2 do it without she got tired halfway dwn pool n went under water then had 2 grab pole 4 help. Ever since she has refused to even go into deep end the last 2wks lessons the guy has tried everythng but shes sobbing in fear…this wk finishes this set of lessons n her dad took her at w.end 2 try t build her confidence which helped abit but i know on friday she’l b crying again! Her instructor said she was in top 3 of her class before this so its very frustrating!! I would realy appreciate some advice to help her.

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