Hello, I'm Claire. I'm a Little Dipper

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Question: can a four-month-old infant swim underwater with eyes wide open and a smile on her face? Answer: yes, if she's been trained by Lauren Heston who worked on the Mercury commercials. Susan Young watched some water babies in action.

You are in your local swimming pool watching indulgently as a mother plays with her tiny baby in the water. Then you notice that she is pouring water over the infant's head in handfuls before taking a firm hold of him, deliberately dunking him under the water and "swimming" him up to her chest.

In Sussex and London hundreds of babies are successful graduates of Little Dippers, a pioneering system of swimming lessons for tiny babies billed as being both fun and a potential lifesaver.

The current Mercury commercials featuring a baby "flying" around a harassed office worker were filmed using Little Dippers babies. Indeed, the method was pioneered by film diver Lauren Heston after she was commissioned to teach babies to swim underwater in the Red Sea for groundbreaking British Gas commercials a decade ago.

The image was striking, largely because of the controlled way in which apparently helpless infants were able to use their limbs underwater, and also because of their serene, wide-eyed expressions as they swam. Clearly, the babies were in no distress and were actually enjoying the experience.

Despite all this, it is still a daunting experience to push your four-month-old baby underwater for the first time, but with plenty of preparation the baby - and, more importantly, the parent - finds it surprisingly easy.

Lauren points out that people do not drown by getting a mouthful of water. They drown when they lose consciousness and the epiglottis no longer protects the lungs. So the point of her classes - quite apart from providing fun for the babies and parents - is to help the baby's natural instinct to survive until help arrives if it falls in water.

Little Dippers are taught to swim to the side of the pool and hold on, and how to float on their backs. As classes - currently available in Brighton and Uckfield in East Sussex and Wimbledon in London - get more advanced, the children are even tipped off a rubber boat and kick themselves to the side.

Early lessons - and bathtimes - involve a great deal of routine and repetition, as babies learn simple commands to warn them what to expect. An authoritative "Ready-go!" warns them to breathe in because water is about to be tipped over their heads; a couple of weeks later it also means that they are about to be dunked underwater.

"What I think is the most important thing about swimming is to teach babies how to save themselves. In the later classes we drop them into water and they turn back to the side and hold on. Sometimes they float on their backs. Last summer a little boy fell into the pond in his back garden, and by the time his mother got to him he was floating on his back. He'd done three or four courses," says Lauren.

For a new parent, it can be awesome to discover just what this helpless infant is capable of, which in turn can lead to better understanding and stimulation from an early age. Realising that a four-month-old can respond to a command like "Hold on!" leads to trying the same thing on land. Wondering just what else the baby can understand also encourages parents to be more adventurous in their approach to their infant.

Some parents also believe that the lessons themselves stimulate development, as babies are learning in an environment which makes controlled movement easier. Children who cannot even manage to hold a rattle can "chase" and reach out for toys in the water.

And, although most children cannot learn actual swimming strokes until they are three or four years old, the need for parents to keep up what has been learned in Little Dippers classes with weekly trips to the swimming pool means early habits of regular, fun exercise are instilled. With studies showing that small children are getting less and less fit, developing such an early habit could be vitally important.

Moreover, two research studies have shown physical benefits for children who have been swimming from a few months old, including better co-ordination and increased strength. Lauren Heston, who has seen hundreds of babies grow into toddlers and beyond through Little Dippers, has no doubt of the benefits. She says: "There are fantastic physical effects. It develops their respiratory systems, is good for the heart and it helps their mental progress. It's a learning process. Their muscle development is advanced. On the eight-month check they tend to be ahead on everything. They are usually immensely strong.

"The old school says children learn to swim with armbands. But that way doesn't teach them anything. People tell me proudly that their child can swim two widths with armbands, but I say, 'What's the point of that?' It certainly doesn't teach anyone what to do if there's an accident."

'It develops their respiratory systems, is good for the heart and mental progress'.

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