There is a set of involuntary skills most babies are born with, and these are called the primitive reflexes. Reflexes happen naturally - most babies can't help but do them, and they serve a range of functions; some are protective and keep a baby safe, while others are more challenging to understand. Babies will instinctively suck when something hits the roof of their mouths (the sucking reflex), and they will put their arms in front of the face if they are falling (the parachute reflex). These two reflexes make sense - a baby sucks to feed herself, and needs to instinctively protect herself from harm by covering her face. But there are a couple of reflexes that happen when a baby is in the water, and some swim schools feel that these need to be practised during baby swimming lessons.
The Diving Reflex and the Gag Reflex
When babies (and some other mammals) are placed beneath the water, a number of things happen involuntarily. A baby will automatically shut off a little flap called the glottis, which seals off the windpipe to stop water travelling into their lungs and redirects it down to the stomach. The heart rate slows, and the urge to breathe is diminished, while the body sends blood to the vital organs and away from the extremities.
The Amphibian Reflex
When babies are placed horizontally beneath the water, they make involuntary kicking and pulling motions with the arms and legs, and it looks as if they are swimming towards the surface of the water.
All infant reflexes fade over time - a baby learns different strategies as she develops and grows and no longer needs to use her instincts alone to navigate the world. However some baby swim schools encourage parents to make the most of their infant reflexes in the water while they still exist. I feel massively uncomfortable about this pressure our industry places on parents to capitalise on primitive reflexes. There's a part of me that feels it's a way to justify all of the under water swimming we've come to expect as the norm.
Do we try to make the most of any of a baby's other primitive reflexes before they disappear? When I held my daughter's little feet in my hands when she was tiny, she instinctively seemed to walk (the stepping reflex) - I didn't take that as a sign to pop her on a treadmill and capitalise on what she could do. She instinctively startled and gripped on to me if she heard a loud noise (the Moro reflex), but I didn't take that as a signal to bang a drum in her ear to make the most of the skill. I didn't drop her repeatedly onto the floor face first to help her practise her parachute reflex either!
Just because a baby can do something, it doesn't mean they should have to. Just because a baby can redirect the air away from their lungs to their stomachs, it doesn't mean we should be giving them opportunities to do so. If a baby reaches the age of two having never used a single swimming reflex, it is my honest opinion that it will be no loss whatsoever - I don't feel that it will affect their ability to swim. Some reflexes are amazing and so important and beneficial - the sucking reflex in particular, while others are throwbacks to the way we evolved.
When a swim school justifies encouraging you to put your baby under the water by telling you about infant reflexes, it's worth thinking critically. Babies don't need submerging deep under water in order to learn to swim, whether or not they are physically capable of doing so.