Understanding your baby’s breath-holding reflex - by Jo Wood, Aquatics Manager

05 February 2016

Baby swimming is now much more mainstream than it was a decade ago, and many parents are aware that their baby will instinctively hold their breath under water. Knowing this in theory is one thing, but putting your precious baby under the water for the first time is another thing completely!

The recommendation is always to learn the correct technique from a trained baby swimming professional before swimming your baby underwater yourself. At our classes we take our new Level 1 babies for their first underwater swim on their second or third visit to the pool. This is always a very special moment, and one that I feel really privileged to be a part of, no matter how many times I do it. The babies always amaze me with their calm serenity (for the most part!!)

I remember vividly the nerves and adrenaline flooding through my body when I watched my own tiny 8 week old daughter going underwater in front of me and as a result I never underestimate how nervous some parents feel at this moment.

I think it really helps to understand fully how the breath-holding reflex works, so I always try to explain this briefly in the class to help put parents at ease.

The breath-holding reflex, or to give it it’s technical name the laryngeal reflex, is activated by the sensation of water on a baby’s face, nose and throat. Babies often go under water with their mouths open and the soft tissue at the back of the throat immediately seals off the baby’s windpipe so that any water that enters the mouth is diverted down into the stomach. As babies get older and learn to handle the water in their mouths you will often see them spout water out of their mouths as they come up from an underwater swim.

The reflex is really strong in babies under 6 months, and gradually wears off during the second half of the first year of life. However babies starting over 6 months will learn much more quickly to hold their breath as a learned response rather than a reflex action.

Right from the start we teach babies a verbal cue (Name, Ready, Go) before their underwater swims, so very quickly they learn to associate this cue with holding their breath, this way the reflex seamlessly turns into a learned response. It is amazing how soon even the littlest babies learn to anticipate going underwater in response to the verbal cue - you can see their little faces getting prepared as you say Name, Ready, Go - super cute!

Using this cue also puts babies in control as they can tell us if they don’t want to go underwater on any particular occasion. If a baby cries in response to Name, Ready, Go then we know they don’t want to go - and we NEVER take a crying baby underwater.

Capitalising on the breath-holding reflex in the first year of your baby’s life is teaching them a potentially life-saving skill that they will never forget, as long as you keep swimming regularly. Once a baby has learnt to safely go underwater they are much less likely to panic if they were ever to fall into water accidentally. It is a sad fact that drowning can happen in seconds as panic can cause a sharp intake of breath, filling the lungs with water. Learning the breath holding skill with underwater swimming early in life can and does save lives.

It will also help them to swim independently far sooner, as children can swim below the surface long before they can swim with their head above water.

 However don’t feel that if your baby is over one year that it is too late to start (something I often get asked). The best time to start swimming is always the sooner the better, whatever age your child is, so get in touch with your local baby swim school and they will find a class appropriate for your baby, toddler or pre-schooler.