Safety Tips When Taking Your Baby Swimming.
We’ve all seen photographs like the one on the right. And the famous Nirvana album cover with the baby swimming underwater is now over 20 years old. The baby on that cover, Spencer Elden, was flung into a pool and then had his photograph taken. He’s still around to tell the tale and none the worse for the experience – at least not unless you count people asking him about a certain part of his anatomy, which apparently people regularly do.
However, a 10 month-old baby in Italy was not so lucky. The Journal of Clinical Pathology reports that this baby died from “Sudden infant death triggered by dive reflex.”
The “dive reflex” is often cited as a reason it is safe to take very young babies swimming, and is mentioned it in the first video below.
But if it is also considered by pathologists to have triggered a baby’s death, what exactly is going on? Is it safe to take your very young baby swimming or not?
Babies Developing Confidence in the Water
Is It Safe to Take Your Very Young Baby Swimming?
To attempt to answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the dive reflex.
All of us have the instinct to hold our breaths when underwater, and this applies to infants too. Some sources on the Internet claim this is the dive reflex – including the first video clip shown here. The truth is it is part of the dive reflex, but not all of it.
One site explains that Swedish researchers studied 21 babies (aged from 4 months to one year) and found that none of them choked or inhaled water when being submerged in water. The researchers also observed that the babies seemed to enjoy the experience.
But this same site also referred to the dive reflex as the “bradycardic response.”
I know a thing or two about bradycardia. My younger daughter had more than one bradycardia when she was just weeks old. They set off alarm bells on the monitors to which she was hooked up. Reading that the dive reflex is also referred to as the bradycardic response set off a few alarms bells in me, and led me to to an investigation into the safety of the much-promoted tactic of ducking a young baby’s head underwater to avoid him or her developing a fear of water.
What Exactly Is the Diving Reflex?
This is a reflex involving the cardiovascular and metabolic systems. It occurs in particular in whales and dolphins, and to a lesser degree in other mammals, including humans. (Aquatic mammals store much more oxygen in their muscles than humans do and so can remain without for longer.) When the face is immersed in cold water the breathing naturally stops, the heart rate slows and blood is diverted to the brain, heart and lungs. In this condition it is possible to survive for longer without oxygen underwater than on land, and children tend to survive better than adults. There does not seem to be a consensus view on why this is, nor on the water temperature required to set off the diving reflex.
That the diving reflex only occurs in cold water seems to play a part in survival rates and several sources suggest hypothermia could actually be what allows the body to survive without oxygen. Hypothermia is the body’s attempt to preserve heat in extreme cold; it decreases heart rate and blood pressure, so less oxygen is required. However hypothermia can also kill, and at least one death has been attributed to the diving reflex, so it pays to be cautious when taking your baby swimming. The most obvious way to ensure safety is to take your baby only into warm water. If you do submerge your baby do so only for short periods and under the guidance of a qualified instructor.
What Do ‘Bradycardic’ or ‘Bradycardia’ Mean?
A bradycardia episode is when lack of oxygen causes the heart rate to rapidly drop. In premature babies (my daughter was one) this generally occurs when the baby stops breathing for more than twenty seconds – this is known as apnea. Bradycardia in turn means that the blood and oxygen supply to the baby’s brain is reduced. Researchers have found that children aged 3, who as premature babies have several episodes of apnea and bradycardia, have lower scores in developmental tests than their peers. (The researchers point out this does not mean we can assume the apnea and bradycardia are the cause.)
So does this mean a baby’s heart rate drops significantly during the dive reflex?
Yes, it does.
Is Bradycardia Dangerous?
This is less straightforward. The diving reflex has saved many lives. Although it was originally believed that babies over 6 months lost this reflex, some studies suggest that while the bradycardia response decreases slightly, the diving reflex remains. There are recorded cases of young children surviving underwater for up to half and hour with no long term ill-effects.
There have also been cases where babies died after water births. In one case in the UK in 1992, a spokesman for the hospital involved said that baby died 15 hours after birth and an autopsy did not show any cause of death.
But while the Italian baby mentioned earlier was initially taken to the emergency room after his swimming lesson, he was discharged and then died suddenly the following night. So does what does that mean for the UK baby who died 15 hours after a water birth? Without knowing the details of the autopsy it is impossible to reach any conclusion, but and most experts now consider water births to be safe. That baby died in 1992, and technology and birthing practices have advanced since then.
A Newborn Dive Reflex
There is a newborn dive reflex, but this is not the same as the Mammalian Dive Reflex. Instead it is continuation of the factors that prevent a baby from breathing in the womb, when they are still getting oxygen through the umbilical cord. This only lasts until they reach the surface in a water birth, and would not prevent a baby breathing underwater if taken swimming even shortly after birth.
I am very grateful to fellow writer TFScientist for this explanation of the newborn dive reflex: "It is baby hitting the air that causes it to start breathing. Once it starts, it is very difficult to stop. This change in pressure also closes the hole in baby's heart that prevents the heart from pumping blood to the lungs whilst in the placenta."
What Are the Implications of This?
My aim here is not to debate the safety of water births, but to consider the implications for submerging a small baby in water.
The baby in the Italian study was previously considered healthy. He was submerged in cold water and developed vomiting and diarrhoea. When the baby was taken to ER he was thought to have a viral infection and was treated for dehydration. The next night he died, and the autopsy indicated that the dive reflex, brought on by his face being submerged in cold water, was the cause. It could also be significant that both his parents smoked. (The link to this report is at the bottom of this article.)
The Mammalian Dive Reflex and Cold Water
Cold water is of key importance here, because, the dive reflex is not triggered by warm water. The medical site emedicalhealth (link at end of article) gives the temperature required to stimulate the dive reflex as below 32F or zero centigrade – icy cold water, while Wikipedia says 21°C or 70 °F.
Most public pools that are aimed at families with babies and small children are considerably warmer than pools aimed at serious swimmers. This suggests that the dive reflex is probably not triggered in babies immersed in these pools. Likewise, the website from which the videos shown here originate states that the pools used are close to body temperature – body temperature is around 37 centigrade, and most pools vary between 28 – 32 degrees. So like me, you might now be wondering:
The Obvious Question
Since it’s not the dive reflex, what then prevents all those babies in the videos from breathing underwater? My guess it that the way these babies have been introduced to the water has given them confidence to relax and enjoy the experience. Notice that the instructor holds the very small baby’s head above the water. In the second video clip babies learn to float safely on their backs.
The main reason for teaching a baby to swim is to keep them safe. Drowning is a major cause of death in preschool children, with babies under one most likely to drown in the bath or bucket than anywhere else.
Since small children who panic are more likely to drown, confidence is the real key here. If you are unsure either of water or of taking your baby swimming, your fear is likely to transfer to your baby. I have met many, many parents who want their children to learn to swim so that they won’t develop the same fear that they, the parents, have. If this is you, I suggest you either get support for your own fear before you take your baby swimming, or find a class similar to the one featured in these videos, which will support you to get over your fear whilst also supporting your baby.
Learning to Float on the Back Builds Confidence
Is it Safe to Immerse Your Baby in Water?
To return to the main point of this article: is it safe to immerse your baby in water? If your baby is fit, healthy and well then the answer is probably yes, but since the true dive reflex is triggered by very cold water and leads to a drop in your baby’s heart beat, I cannot see why anyone would want to rely on this.
Instead, even if you are a confident swimmer, when it comes to introducing your baby to the water, it is wise to pick a reputable swim class where the instructor has plenty of experience of working with babies. Our first daughter soon showed a love of water but I wasn’t sure how to teach her to swim. By taking part in a class I learned how to help her build up confidence. The class we joined did a lot of singing, and at the age of three my daughter was surprised to hear someone sing: “Ring a ring a roses,” on dry land. She thought it meant being lifted up and down in a swimming pool.
On the other hand, because my second daughter was born so prematurely we waited till she was over a year old before taking her to a pool. At the first attempt she was not impressed, and the instructor suggested we simply sit with her at the edge of the pool until she felt safe. By the end of the lesson she was happy to be in the water. Both my daughters are now very keen and capable swimmers. A good swimming instructor will be able to guide you in this way to take account of you child's individual needs. They will be encouraging without being forceful and will use gentle methods to guide your child to feel safe in water.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
How long can newborn babies stay underwater?
I'm not sure there's a definitive answer to this, but as long as the umbilical cord is attached and pulsing, the baby will receive oxygen from it and won't try to breathe. However, as soon as the baby is removed from the water, s/he will instinctively breathe. Up to around the age of 6 months, most babies will reflexively hold their breath when underwater, though obviously, they need to come up for air to breathe.