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People Almost Met: Pamsy in Swim Class—Should Babies Learn to Swim?

Inspirational essays and articles, with a touch of humor, are favorite topics for Ms. Giordano, a writer and public speaker.

People Almost Met: Pamsy in Swim Class

This story is one of a series about people whom I have almost met. The stories are about chance encounters with someone that lasts only a brief minute or two, but makes an indelible impression. It’s about encounters that in a small way change my life.

The encounter is too brief for an exchange of names. We may speak or touch, but we haven’t really met—hence the title, “People Almost Met.”

This story is about a baby that I almost met one day at the “Y” when she was taking a swim class. I never learned her name, so I’m just going to call her Pamsy.

A Baby I Am Calling Pamsy

A baby who I will call Pamsy reaches for her mother.

A baby who I will call Pamsy reaches for her mother.

A Baby Howls

I heard the howls of the baby above the general din of the pool room.

I had just finished swimming my laps at the indoor pool at the YMCA Health Club. I turned in the direction of the sound. I saw a baby who looked to be about a year old, wailing and clutching her mother's sweater. I concluded that the baby was a girl because she was wearing a girl’s pink swimsuit. I never learned her name, but I will call her Pamsy, after my youngest sister who is named Pamela. I was 13 years old when she was born, and I gave her the nickname Pamsy. The nickname didn’t stick, so I feel free to bestow it onto this baby.

The mother was trying to hand the baby to a woman already in the pool. It was an epic struggle, but the mother finally pried the baby loose and was able to hand her over. I later realized that this pretty young woman with a blond ponytail wearing a blue wetsuit was a swim instructor. I don’t know her name either, so I’ll call her Dawn.

A Swimming Lesson Begins

Pamsy’s swimming lesson was about to begin.

The lesson was part of the Y's Safe Swim program that teaches water survival to babies as young as six months old. Pamsy did not appear to be very happy about her swimming lesson, but it could save her life one day if she ever accidentally took a tumble into the pool.

Here in Florida, so many people have backyard swimming pools. I moved here from New York, and I hadn't lived here even a week before I heard my first news report about a young child drowning in a swimming pool.

The Baby Swims (Between Howls)

Pamsy evidently knew the drill.

She howled and howled, but as soon as the Dawn raised her into the air (holding her with two hands, one below each of the baby's arm pits) the baby suddenly stopped crying and took a deep breath, sucking in air with a gasp. Dawn then swung Pamsy downwards so that the baby lay face down in the water. Dawn let go of Pamsy, but kept her hands close to her as she swam, her little arms rising up, first left, then right, slapping the water in front of her in a near perfect swimming stroke.

It took only two or three strokes for Pamsy to reach the edge of the pool. Her tiny hands grabbed the ledge, then she lifted her head out of the water and began howling again.

Dawn cooed, "Very good. You did that so well. " She placed her hands around Pamsy's waist and gently tugged her away from the ledge. Pamsy did not want to let go, but she was finally pulled free.

Once again Dawn raised the howling baby into the air, once again the baby stopped crying long enough to grab a breath, and once again the baby was in the water swimming. This happened over and over again. Pamsy knew she had to stop wailing and grab a breath of air, she knew she had to paddle her arms to reach the ledge to get out of the water, but as soon as she had her head above water again, she let her displeasure be known with loud wailings.

A Baby Is Placed in the Pool

A baby gets a swimming lesson. Some babies enjoy learning to swim.

A baby gets a swimming lesson. Some babies enjoy learning to swim.

Howl. Swim. Repeat.

I was fascinated as I watched this scene replayed over and over.

I sat in one of the chairs that lined the walls of the room and watched attentively, The lesson only lasted ten minutes, but it must have seemed like an eternity to Pamsy.

I was fascinated by how well Pamsy understood what she needed to do. She appeared to know that her protests would be futile; she was going to get dunked. She also knew she had to stop her wailing and grab a breath when she was at the top of the arc of Dawn’s swing. She stopped crying at exactly that point each time. Once she was in the water, she knew she had to hold her breath and swim to the ledge. Once her head was out of the water, she knew that it was safe to start wailing again

At Last, The Lesson Ends

I don’t know whether or not Pamsy thought the wailing would make the “torture” stop. Perhaps she thought that if she wailed long enough and hard enough, she’d be placed back into her mother’s arms. Or perhaps she had already learned that after 10 or 12 dunks, it would be over, and she was just wailing to let everyone know that she did not like this one bit.

A towel had been placed on the tile floor near the edge of the pool where Pamsy’s mother had sat and impassively watched the lesson.

When the lesson was over, Pamsy was placed on her stomach on the towel. The mother soothed her by rubbing her back. as she dried her off with another towel. Pamsy seemed to realize the lesson was over because her wails turned to whimpers as her mother removed her wet bathing suit and dressed her in dry clothes.

The Swim Lesson Regimin

Pamsy had to do it all again the next day.

The lessons are five days a week for four to six weeks. At the end of the course, Pamsy will know how to stay afloat and how to swim. She will feel comfortable in the water. And one day, the skills she is learning could prevent her from drowning in a backyard swimming pool, or a retention pond, or at a lake.

After that day, I often watched other children have their swimming lessons. Some of the babies didn’t cry and appeared to enjoy their time in the water. Some of the lessons were with toddlers and children up to about the age of five or six. The older children were usually quite pleased with themselves as they improved their swimming skills. Instead of wails, there were gleeful shouts of “Look at me, Mom. Look at me.“

A Baby Swims Underwater

Even infants can learn to swim, or least learn how not to drown.

Even infants can learn to swim, or least learn how not to drown.

Why Babies Need To Learn How To Swim

Your child may take lessons in many things as he grows up—music lessons, dancing lessons, art lessons—depending on his interest. None of these will be more important than swimming lessons.

Drowning is second only to auto accidents as the cause of injury-related death for children one through four years of age. More than six in ten children who drown are under the age of five. Drowning accidents can happen anywhere--in swimming pools, bathtubs, anyplace where there is water. A child can drown in as little as one inch of water.

It takes only a moment of inattention for a child to drown. After about two minutes under water, a child will lose consciousness. After four to six minutes, there will be irreversible brain damage.

Swimming lessons will not drown-proof your child. It is important for an adult to supervise young children in or near water at all times. That means eyes-on. If your nose is in a book or you are busy with your phone, your child is not being properly supervised. (Read People Almost Met: Lily at the Pool for more about this.)

What is your opinion about Pamsy and her swim lesson?

A Baby Floats

Learning to float is important.

Learning to float is important.

Safe Start Survival/Infant Swimming Resource Program

Safe Start Survival/Infant Swimming Resource is a program to teach infants and young children how to avoid drowning. Children as young as six months will be taught how to hold their breath underwater and how to roll over onto their backs in the water so they can float unassisted until they are rescued.

Children from age one to four will be taught how to swim until they need air and then roll over onto their backs to breathe. They can then resume swimming. They will learn to repeat this sequence until they reach safety. If they are in a pool, this means the steps or the edge of the pool. In other cases, it would mean reaching the shore or water’s edge.

All instruction is done one-on-one by a certified instructor. The final test is when the child is dropped into the pool fully clothed and she must save herself. The lessons continue until she can pass the test.

For More Information

Please check these websites for more information about swimming lessons for babies and young children. Find a program near you.

YMCA Safe Swim

© 2015 Catherine Giordano