Water safe ... Children can start a structured swimming program, accompanied by a parent, as young as four months.

Water safe ... Children can start a structured swimming program, accompanied by a parent, as young as four months.

Drowning is the top cause of accidental death in children under five years old in Australia. So it's not surprising that many people are keen to see kids start swimming sooner rather than later.

But with wellbeing and safety at the forefront of most parents' minds, when is the right time for a child to start learning to swim? And can kids be pushed to take the plunge too soon?

The good news is that there is no 'right time', and generally, the earlier kids are familiar and comfortable in water, the better they fare. Of course, it's never too late for a child to learn, either!

And the best place to start the process? In the comfort of a family home - during baby's bath time.

Swimming centre owner and former Olympic coach Laurie Lawrence is an advocate for parents using bath time as the first step in the process - even for newborns. But Lawrence encourages parents to do their research on the subject first.

Along with online resources, such as worldwideswimschool.com, DVDs that outline basic at-home baby water familiarisation and safety are available.

Once young children are comfortable in water, parents may start to wonder about when to start formal swimming lessons - a decision that sometimes, particularly if mum or dad is fearful of water, can be accompanied by angst.

The Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association recommends that children can start a structured swimming program, accompanied by a parent, as young as four months. But some centres prefer children to be older.

Alison Benns, the manager at Terrey Hills Swim School, says although babies are eligible to start lessons at the northern Sydney centre from four months, a medical certificate stating that a child is otherwise healthy is required for infants younger than six months old.

"More commonly children start in the parents-and-bubs classes from six months," Benns says.

If children have developed an affinity for water, swimming lessons are generally a pleasurable experience for baby and parent.

But Benns says the perception that parent-and-baby swimming lessons are no more than singing songs and having fun, without structure or direction, is incorrect.

"Well-run parent-and-baby classes are about teaching parents as much as the children about water safety ... learning things such as using the right verbal cues and never allowing children to enter a pool until a parent gives them permission is important," she says.

The association says parents should remain present in swimming classes with children up until the age of four, but some independent lessons start from three years old.

Generally these beginner classes, without parents, reiterate early water safety messages, along with expanding skills such as teaching kids how to submerge their face in water and exhale, and to float.

Benns says along with age-appropriate physical and motor skill development, other indicators that children are ready for lessons without mum or dad include the child accepting being separated from parents and a willingness to wear cap and goggles.

Making a water baby

  • Start supervised water safety and familiarisation exercises as early as possible.
  • Never force a child to go underwater.
  • Wait until a baby is four to six months old before starting formal lessons.
  • Align where you stand on flotation aids - will they learn with or without?
  • Choose a centre with good facilities and staff.
  • Remember learning to swim is a long-term process.