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Safety Tips When Taking Your Baby Swimming.

Updated on July 21, 2016

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."

This baby is safe with mother
This baby is safe with mother | Source

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.


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    • Luti Febrian W profile image

      Luti Febrian W 4 years ago from Surabaya, Indonesia

      first time i take my baby to swim is when he still 14 month, and he afraid, very afraid.

    • ThePracticalMommy profile image

      Marissa 4 years ago from United States

      Interesting hub! I was told by my doctor not to take my kids swimming until they were at least 4-6 months old and even then to have them in the water for only about 30 minutes. Reasons behind that? He didn't like the idea of babies being exposed to the chemicals used in swimming pools and was concerned about the body temperature of the babies dropping (at least in a colder outdoor pool). My son was born in the summer and didn't go swimming until he was about a year old. He has been a fish ever since! My daughter first went swimming at 6 months old and also loved being in a pool. I think it makes a difference when the parents are strong swimmers and confident in the pool, as you suggest.

      The whole bradycardia/dive reflex scares me. I don't like the idea of purposefully putting a baby's head under water...whether it be for a water birth or getting used to water.

      Thanks for sharing! Voted up!

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Luti Febrian,

      Thank you for your comment. If you can find a reputable teacher and gain confidence in taking your baby swimming that will most likely help. Or you could try what the instructor suggested with my baby and just stay by the side or in very shallow water until you son feels safe.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      HI TPM, Your doctor sounds great. The chemicals in the water was part of the reason why I didn’t take my second daughter till she was much older. We got her a wetsuit when we did take her because she easily got cold.

      I agree with you about putting the baby’s head underwater. Lots of parents did it with their kids in the class we went to, but it didn’t feel right to me so I never did. I think it would have scared my daughters too much as they took a while to get used to being underwater. And like your son they are both now fish!

      Thanks for sharing your experience, it adds a lot to the hub.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 4 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Fascinating article! I have not heard of the term "dive reflex," or even that it was related to what your child experienced as an infant. My children were all over 6 months before I took them to mommy and me swim classes and I don't think we ever fully submerged them until they were older. Water safety is a huge issue for parents - whether in the bathtub or around unsupervised pools without fences or gates. Great hub - rated up!

    • Luti Febrian W profile image

      Luti Febrian W 4 years ago from Surabaya, Indonesia

      nice,. i'll think about it

    • BRIAN SLATER profile image

      Brian Slater 4 years ago from Nottingham Uk

      Great info Melovy. Never heard of "dive reflex" before but you have certainly put your point over well. I would never risk a baby particularly a newborn one by submerging it under water. Voted up-awesome.

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 4 years ago from North Carolina

      I have always seen people taking very tiny babies for swimming and didn't think it was right. I never heard of an "underwater" reflex and now it is doubly certain I would never do this. Thanks for alerting us to this possiblilty. Useful information!

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Didn't realize there were all these issues involved with teaching baby to swim. I always thought the Dive Reflex would protect them but apparently there's more to it. Thanks for pointing that out. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Steph,

      I’m pleased to see you found this fascinating. I didn’t actually know much about the dive reflex when I began to write this, other than that it existed. The more I looked into the issue, the more I realised it was far from straightforward. I think it’s something that we really need to think carefully about, and as you say water safety in general is a big issue. Like you I erred on the side of caution.

      Thanks for your comment and the vote up.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Luti Febrian, you’re welcome.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Brian, glad you found it of interest. It’s looking like a lot of people haven’t heard of the dive reflex, and many more don’t understand it! It’s a complex issue, but having read about the bradycardia I would definitely not recommend it.

      Thanks for your comment and vote up.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Tammy, the point Practical Mommy made about the chemicals in swimming pools was what originally put me off taking my babies when they were tiny. Reading the full details of the dive reflex made me glad I made that choice. I guess for some babies, in some circumstances, it could be safe, but I think parents would be wise to be very, very cautious of this.

      I think there’s a desire in some parents to push babies and small children into being advanced for their age and the interests of the child aren’t always best served by this. At least that’s what I observed in some of the classes I took my kids to, though I think the reasons the mothers in the video give for taking their babies swimming are valid. I guess it depends on the individual. But after what I’ve read I would not put a baby’s head underwater!

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Alocsin, you’re definitely not alone in not realising all the issues. I had similar thoughts to you about the dive reflex until I began to investigate further. Thanks for your comment and vote up.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, "dive reflex." I've never heard of it before... and I'm still a bit unclear on it. Would you mind adding a very succinct definition of it near the beginning of the Hub?

      At any rate, this was a most interesting read! I did not know that submerging a baby in water could have so many potential complications. And hehehee, Spencer Elden's that baby's name, huh? He definitely has the world's coolest naked baby photo.

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 4 years ago

      I have a speculation.

      When in the womb, an embryo/fetus/baby is protected by a liquid called Amniotic Fluid. The presence of the fluid basically protects that embryo/fetus/baby as s/he grows. When in the womb, despite having a nose; a baby is not 'breathing' but in fact getting her/his oxygen supply from her/his mother via the Umblical cord (a tube that connects the baby to the mother).

      Hence it is save to say that babies have 9 months of practice to in fact NOT breath when submerged in fluid.

      At the time of birth you may have heard people say that their 'water broke', it simply means that this said liquid is being drained. The baby takes its first breath when out of the mother's body and has its cord cut.

      This speculation could in fact clarify why most babies hold their breath underwater; because they have trained 9 months to do the same.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Simone, I will be happy to add a succinct definition of the dive reflex, or at least I’ll do my best. I think a lot of the confusion arises because there seems to be a medical/biological definition and then a more colloquial one. Even then the medical definitions vary! But as I said, i’ll do my best!

      Thanks for reading and glad you found it interesting.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Qudsia, you could be right about why babies hold their breath underwater. And amniotic fluid is of course warm, as are birthing pools and many toddler pools.

      One site I read said that during a water birth because, as you said, the baby is still receiving oxygen from the mother via the umbilical cord this means the baby can have its head out of the birth canal but can wait to take a breath. But rapidly after birth the blood and oxygen flow from the cord ceases so the baby needs to breathe - and therefore needs to be brought to the surface quickly.

      There is huge difference however between that and throwing a baby into a cold pool and letting it fend for itself, so I think parents need to take care to make informed choices.

      Thank you for adding to the hub with your thoughtful comment.

    • mandymoreno81 profile image

      mandymoreno81 4 years ago

      I wouldn't take a baby anywhere near a pool or water without constant supervision. It's just too dangerous when they're not at an age where they can really control their movements consciously.

    • Phoebe Pike 4 years ago

      When I take my son swimming I have him wear a lifejacket, the floaty devices that go around the arms, and a tub he sits in... I suppose I might be a bit overly cautious, but it comforts me to know he will be safe with me not a foot away.

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 4 years ago from Neverland

      I never heard of the dive reflex - and I read ALL the "what to expect when..." books! Luckily for my kids I have an insane fear of water so I never took them near it. Of course they all know how to swim now (for my own sanity) but when they were babies? No way no how :) I will be reading more into this topic. Thank you for bringing it to my attention and for presenting it in a way that even my simple mind can understand!!!! Great Hub, votes up, useful and interesting

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Mandymoreno81,

      Sorry I took so long to reply, I must have missed your comment. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Phoebe

      I think it’s fine to do whatever feels right for you. That’s really the point of this hub, not to say what anyone should do, but by providing the information, hopefully it makes it easier to make informed decisions.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Ardie,

      Good to see you here and glad you found this useful. From what I read most people don’t seem to understand the dive reflex, including many people who talk about it. I do think it’s up to us all to do what we think is right for our kids, and well done you for getting yours to swimming lessons in spite of your fear. It was easier for me because I love swimming.

      Thanks for your kind comment and vote up.

    • Sharyn's Slant profile image

      Sharon Smith 4 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

      Hi Yvonne ~ I am quite impressed with the information and how you presented it here. I won't be taking a baby swimming any time soon, but even so, I like to check out articles not just for their subject but because I enjoy the writer. I never heard of the diving reflex, very interesting. I learned quite a bit from your piece here as I am positive others will as well. Really great job!


    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Sharyn, thanks very much for reading when you don’t even have a baby to take swimming! I am glad you found the article interesting. I feel very honoured by your comment, and I really appreciate it, thank you.

    • Susanna 4 years ago

      You might be confusing at some points the mammalian diving reflex with the breath holding response.

      The mammalian diving reflex is the one you are talking about: if the face comes in contact with cold! water the human body will respond to it by (among others) slowing the heart rate down. Children and adults have this reflex (it's stronger by children though).

      The article about the italian baby that died 1992 says it was thrown into a cold water. The water temperature in the pools where baby swimming classes take place this days is usualy 32-34 C. The mammalian diving reflex is therefore irrelevant for today's baby swimming classes - the water is to warm to cause it. So your baby won't die in the class (or after it) because of slowed heart rate caused by diving reflex.

      The breath holding response on the other hand causes babies to hold their breath if water (or blowed air) come into their faces. It disappears when the baby is 4-6 months old.

      If you take your baby to swimming classes before this reflex disappears it will automatically hold its breath. And if you continue to take your baby to the swimming classes and it will dive regularly the breath holding response will be replaced later on by a learned response to hold the breath.

      By the way: our instructor always check if the breath holding reflex is still there by pouring some water from a watering can over their heads before letting the babies dive.

    • Kathryn L Hill profile image

      Kathryn L Hill 4 years ago from LA

      Great article and use of media. Its always good to try to save lives. The dive response must include the closing of the throat which is what babies naturally do for nine months in the womb. So, if given proper lead up experiences, the baby can submerge and stay safe, not by breathing underwater, of course, but by closing his throat. As you mentioned, the response is instinctive and supposedly diminishes after nine months, but I have never seen any age child not instinctively close his throat under water.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Susanna,

      Apologies for the late reply; July has been a hectic month.

      The points you make about the dive reflex are covered in the article. My point was that many people are confused by the term and use it mistakenly.

      I was interested in what you wrote about the breath holding response, but could not find any scientific information about this on the internet. If you know of any I'd be glad if you could let me know. (The only references to it that I found were on swimming instructors websites.)

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Hi Kathryn Hill,

      I think you are right and it is pretty automatic for most people instinctively avoid breathing underwater.

      The dive reflex is slightly different as it is a physiological response triggered by cold water, and because so many people are confused by it, it's always best to take a baby to a reputable swimming class.

      Thanks for your kind comment, and sorry for the delay in replying. (July is a busy month for most people I think.)

    • Poetic Fool 4 years ago

      Very interesting! I was one of those that thought all babies just automatically held their breath when underwater. Thanks for all the great info on the dive reflex, babies and water safety. Voted up, interesting, useful and shared!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Yvonne, very interesting article. I had never heard of 'dive reflex'; the story of the Italiam baby is very tragic. I bet the parents never imagined such a thing could happen, very sad. We took our daughter to our local leisure pool when she was about 4 months old but the water is usually quite warm and she seemed to love it. She is still quite a water baby at 17 years old :o)

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Poetic Fool, the more I researched into this the more there was to learn. It is surprising how many myths there are around this, and how many people are confused.

      Thanks very much for your comment and for sharing.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Jools, it was very sad about the Italian baby, and I'm sure you are right his parents could not have expected that.

      I think most babies are like your daughter was and prefer warm water!

      Thanks for your comment.

    • KDuBarry03 4 years ago

      Very useful information! My sister's family lives with us for right now and their kids love the pool! (1 2yr old and 1 8month old) We're always around and we have a lot of toys and things for them to use when they're in the water. You definitely delivered many more insights when taking them swimming! Thank you :)

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Keith, I think what you say here is so important: "We're always around." Kids need constant supervision at that age - and what a lovely age it is. I bet your nephews or nieces are great fun to be with.

      Thanks for your comment!

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