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Submersions and the Science Behind it

During some of our baby swimming classes we practice submersions with the babies.  This is a parent’s choice, you are not obliged to practice this. To help you and save time during the lessons here is a little of the science behind it.



Babies who are taken swimming prior to 6 months of age, can be submerged and the breath holding response, diving reflex along with the gag reflex will ensure that they hold their breath whilst submerged.  Their breath holding abilities need to be taken into account, as babies breathe at a more rapid rate than adults they should not be submerged for too long (3 seconds max) to start with, however, these can be gradually increased with practice as their breath holding ability increases.


When submerging a baby under 6 months old, the adult holding them will also probably be aware of the Amphibian reflex. The baby will feel like they are kicking towards the surface, their whole body may give a little flick too, lift their head from the water to breathe by themselves, hence the link to the Mammalian dive reflex and the breath holding response. The Amphibian reflex will usually have disappeared by the time the baby is approx. 6 months old.


When submerging a baby at any time we need to be positive and hold them as gently and lightly as possible.  The movement should be slow, rhythmical and most of all not at all jerky. Think of them as a little egg. When they come up out of the water we continue the activity we were doing prior to them going under. Then we praise them, tell them how well they have done in a calm, quiet and positive manner with a happy face. We can gently and rhythmically sway them in the water from side to side.


We don't immediately cuddle them, as this gives them a sign that they have been rescued from something bad, no matter how they naturally reacted to the submersion.  If babies are submerged in the correct way then they can truly enjoy time in the water both above the surface and below, and soon you will find that most of them are more than happy to submerge themselves.


Baby may cough a little once the air touches their face as they come up from the water. This is simply because they may have opened their mouth whilst under and a little water has tickled the back of their mouth, stimulating the cough to clear it. This is no different to when they drink their milk a little too fast and cough a little. The water will clear itself, resist to the urge to furiously pat or slap their back to assist as this may startle rather than help them.




  • An Important point that we must always remember is that we need to supervise the baby at all times whilst in the pool, it only takes a moments distraction for accidents to happen, so, as the responsible adult you need to remain alert and concentrate on your baby at all times, Never, Never take anything for granted.


Babies are born with many reflexes (an involuntary muscle reaction to an external stimulation).

These reflexes help the baby develop and learn voluntary muscle actions. As a baby develops, the new-born reflexes slowly disappear as they are replaced by the baby's own voluntary actions. We can use some of these new-borns reflexes to help develop learned actions in the water environment. 

There are 4 main reflexes linked to baby swimming.


  • Breath Holding Response

This reflex works in conjunction with the Gag reflex and the Mammalian Dive reflex.  When the baby's face is blown on or water splashes it, they will hold their breath.  The breath holding response usually stays with us, although it fades and can be over-ridden in adulthood.


  • Laryngeal (gag) Reflex

If water gets into a baby's mouth the Laryngeal reflex is stimulated. The baby's glottis and epiglottis react and create a watertight seal over the windpipe. This seal prevents any of the water from entering the baby's lungs. This does not, however, close the oesophagus, which leads to the stomach, so the baby may still swallow the water that is entering their mouth. This reflex is active whilst the baby is feeding to stop them from choking as they continually swallow. Although they do not physically gag, the epiglottis forms the seal over the windpipe, but because in babies it is slightly elongated it meets the soft palate when closing.  As the baby grows the epiglottis shortens and this then means that when the epiglottis closes, it closes entry from both the nose and the mouth at the same time. There is no definite decision as to when this reflex disappears and turns into a learnt action, it may vary greatly from baby to baby.


  • Amphibian Reflex

When a baby is in water or held horizontally above a surface, face downwards, they appear to start a swimming type of action. This is a bending of their torso along with rhythmic movements of the arms and legs.  This movement can have the effect of propelling the baby through the water for a short distance, and looks as though they are actually swimming.  However the baby is unable to lift their head from the water to breathe by themselves, hence the link to the Mammalian dive reflex and the breath holding response. The Amphibian reflex will usually have disappeared by the time the baby is approximately 6 months old.


  • Mammalian Dive Reflex

When the baby's face comes into contact with the water the body automatically reacts to protect the major organs, especially the heart and the brain.  The heart rate slows down, blood is redistributed to the major organs from the extremities starting with fingers and toes and then possibly the arms and legs, to conserve these organs. The Mammalian dive reflex will not usually disappear, however it is strongest up to 2 years of age. We practice gentle, controlled submersions in order not to stimulate this reflex.

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