Back crawl is one of the four main strokes we teach in the pool, and swimmers are taught to float on their backs as a key skill. Often, parents will then be confused when they lie their babies on their backs in the water, whether in the bath or at the pool, and find themselves wrestling a wriggling, panicky little person who is desperately trying to get out of the position.
Why do some babies dislike being on their backs in the water?
Even though your little one might love lying on his back on the playmat, there is far less support from the water. Your baby can't roll over because you're (of course) supporting them and holding them in place - and if they manage to wriggle out of your arms and roll over they'll end up with a face full of water! They're not feeling quite safe, and they know they can't get out of the position you've put them in, however much they try to roll over or sit up. To understand how it might feel, imagine lying on your back whilst suspended on a narrow pole and trying to roll onto your front without falling off - you'd feel like a tortoise trying to right itself! They also might dislike the water going into their ears, and they might be missing the eye contact they get with you when you're facing each other in the water. But most important of all is the righting reflex, which kicks in from as early as 2 months and can last up to 12 months. This strong reflex is activated when babies are tipped backwards, and this can make them try to turn their head in the opposite direction in order to try to right themselves.
How can we help babies to feel more comfortable on their backs?
The key is not to push. Don't force your baby onto his back. Ease him back very slowly and gently, support him as much as possible with your arms, maintaining eye contact all the while. Try using motion to get your baby used to the position - they might feel strange lying flat and still on their backs, but more comfortable when moving backwards through the water or being gently rocked from side to side. If you rest your baby's head gently on your shoulder, you can easily adjust the angle of her body by moving your shoulder up and down. Some babies are very happy in an almost upright position and can be rotated to a flat back float little by little, week by week.
An alternative is simply to keep supporting your baby on her back using a gentle hold and let her take the lead and roll onto her front, keeping her mouth clear of the water. Learning to rotate in the water is an excellent skill!
It is unlikely that your little one will be twelve years old and still refusing to go on his back - we often find that backstroke is a firm favourite amongst swimmers of all abilities.