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Fear Not!

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Fear Not: How proper introduction to water at an early age helps children develop an emotional readiness for future swimming experiences.


Are Children Born with a Fear of the Water?

No! All fears, with the possible exceptions of the fear of falling and fear of very loud noises are learned. It’s rare to find an infant who is afraid of the water. 

By the same seasoning, it’s rare to find babies who are afraid of snakes, poisons, and electrical outlets.

Related to the fear of falling and loud noises is the “startle” response. An infant is born with a well-developed sense of body position and is quite sensitive to body movement. Sudden loss of support, sudden elevation of the body or sudden jarring of the resting surface will result in a “startle” response. The response is usually characterized by crying or a quick grasp of air.

The same response will usually occur if the baby is in the presence of a very loud noise – a door slamming or the popping of a balloon.

However, an infant is not aware of any dangers associated with water and, therefore, has not developed that fear.


Then Why Does My Baby Cry When I Give them a Bath?

There are a number of possible causes:

Change of Temperature: changing temperatures from warm to cold or cool to hot can be upsetting to an infant because their tiny body is not equipped with a developed thermostat to help regulate it to a sudden change.

Your baby could object to this discomfort. A parent may think the baby is upset over the water itself and will take the baby out, wrap them in a warm towel and speak sympathetically to them. The baby, then being warm and covered will quiet down, not so much for being out of the water, but for being comfortable.

Tip: To avoid such a short time in the bath, it’s important that this first introduction to water be made as comfortable and pleasurable as possible.

Insecure Handling: The “startle” response explained earlier can be another possible cause of crying. If you lower your baby into the bath too quickly or without secure support, you could startle them. Since babies usually respond to a startling experience by crying, this reaction may confuse you. You may assume that the crying is a rejection of the water when, in fact, it may be a result of the way you put them into the bathtub, or simply the way you hold them.

The hands that touch and hold your baby reveal a lot about you. Unfortunately, many parents don’t know how or are afraid to touch their new babies. Infants can tell whether you’re calm and tender or nervous and rough.

A baby that senses loving, attentive and confident hands will relax. If your hands are stiff, nervous or clumsy, your child will respond negatively.

Uncomfortable Surface: Let’s consider the surface on which you’re placing your baby. An infant feels very insecure on a hard, flat surface because they have not developed the muscle control necessary to keep them steady. They may lose control and rock from side to side like a turtle stuck on its backside. This experience, too, can elicit a “startle” response. It is much more comfortable for an infant to be either held or placed on a soft surface such as a sponge pad or folded towels. Not only do these materials provide a warm and conforming base, but they will also help stabilize their body movement and body temperature.

Simple Disruption: A baby can have a bad day just like everybody and it may be that getting undressed, being distracted, and getting wet just weren’t their plans for that day. Rarely can we blame the water itself as the source of discomfort, especially with an infant. After all, the months prior to birth were spent developing in a warm, watery womb so most babies enjoy the pleasant sensations of water.

They are familiar with the feeling of fluid around their bodies and being immersed in water usually relaxes them.

Parental Attitudes: Let’s take a closer look at the person bathing the baby. How do you feel about the water? Do you like the feeling of water in your ears or running over your head and down your face? Did you know that your attitude towards these experiences has a lot to do with your child’s developing attitude toward these same things?

Do you assume that your baby will object to water in their ears or drips on their head because you object to the same feeling?

Do you not allow your baby in the shower and because you would rather take baths?

Do you keep a handy towel beside your baby to wipe their eyes dry when you’re bathing?

So much of what we do and how we react will affect the attitudes and behavior of our children. Facial expressions, what we say and methods we use to handle our children all relay a message. If the message is negative or relays a fear of the water, it’s likely your child will be influenced. Regardless of our personal feelings, we must be conscious of what we are conveying to our young children.


How Can Fear in Children Be Prevented?

Most authorities agree that parental education is needed so that mothers and fathers become aware of the difficulties involved in working with a fearful child. They need to know how their personalities, attitudes, and behaviors affect their children.

Parents must also be aware of factors that cause a fearful situation, in addition to the experiences they can create to promote a positive water attitude in their children. It is hoped that, through knowledge and planning, parents can avoid or decrease the number of potential fear-producing situations.


What Are Some Causes of Water Fear?

We have discussed briefly the development of fear in some children as a result of being reared by fearful parents. Other situations that may create problems include being involved in or witnessing a serious water accident. Fear of the water can also begin by something as obscure as hearing a loud noise when first introduced to water as an infant. Children can acquire a fear if their parents prohibit play in the water, or it they lack opportunities to experience various water activities. In any case, once a fear develops and is allowed to continue unresolved, it becomes very difficult to alleviate. Unless countered either through counseling or everyday experiences such a fear may persist into adult life. If this happens, the adult will rarely, if ever, have an enjoyable water experience.


What Should I Do If My Child Has a Frightful Water Experience?

A child who has rightfully been frightened by a serious water accident must be handled carefully. It does not help to bully, tease or force your child into water activity. This only makes matters worse. There are some things, however, that will help your child. Here are a couple of suggestions you may want to consider.

Talk about the experience: Encourage your child to talk about how they feel, as feelings are most easily dealt with if out in the open. Spoken reassurance is not guaranteed to alleviate fears, but it helps. Phrases like “I’ll bet that scared you,” or “My goodness, what a fright you had,” can give more support than denying that any cause for fear exists. The incident does not have to become the central point of attention, yet the child will recover faster if he can ask questions and receive reassurances.

Be calm in your approach: Your reactions to the situation are also very important. Children tend to be less disturbed by an accident if parents don’t panic. This does not mean you need to suppress your own feelings, but by staying calm, treating the incident lightly, and at times with humor or lightheartedness, your child will be less apt to develop the habit of being anxious.

Be aware, also, of your facial expressions. If your face signals panic or fright every time a mishap occurs, a child will naturally believe that is the way to react to the situation.

Sometimes, around the age of two or three, a child, for no apparent or obvious reason, will suddenly develop a fear of water. Preschool children, because of developing imagination, are subject to unwarranted fears such as going down the drain with the bath water. You cannot completely prevent a child from developing apprehension about unreal dangers as well as actual ones. So in cases like this, it is important that you avoid making your child feel foolish during this period. Be patient, provide needed support and understanding, but continue to encourage water play.


Shouldn’t a Child Have a Little Fear of the Water for Their Own Safety?

This is a very complicated question. According to Webster, fear is “an anxious or agitated feeling caused by the nearness or presence of danger, evil or pain.” If we attempt to instill a fear of the water in our children for the sake of safety, we are suggesting that water play and learning to swim are painful, evil or dangerous. Many parents unknowingly do this, then wonder why their children have trouble adjusting to the water or swimming experience.

Of greater importance, we want our preschoolers to develop a cautious attitude toward water, a respect for its potential hazards, and a knowledge of its pleasures. This includes remembering and abiding by water safety rules and identifying safe swimming conditions.


Can You Teach Respect or Caution?

Some children, because of their basic makeup and personalities, acquire a sense of caution almost spontaneously. However, most preschoolers do not understand the need for caution. To develop a cautious attitude, the child must be able to connect his behavior with its possible results. This often takes more maturity than most preschool age children have. In order to be aware of a particular relationship, a child had to learn basic concepts. For example, if you lean too far forward, you will have to close your mouth. A bad experience with danger will not necessarily teach caution unless the child is sufficiently mature to relate cause and effect.

As parents and caregivers of infants and preschool children, it is our job to supervise water play, and remind our children of the safety rules. We can provide opportunities that encourage safe water experiences and see to it that our children become water safe. We should not, however, assume that our infants and preschool children will display respect or caution around the water, regardless of their swimming ability.


Carolyn Shank: A Child’s Way to Water Play.

Canada: Human Kinetics, Dec. 1991