A lot of kids take to water naturally. In fact, infancy is one of the best times to teach kids how to swim because innate reflexes kick in and because they have no fear of submerging their heads. Unfortunately, this fearlessness often doesn’t last. A long winter with no pool time or a few unhappy interactions with soapy water can make a once-carefree kid reluctant to dunk his or her head when at the pool. Like any other two-step-forward-one-step-back setback, nervousness around water can be frustrating to parents who feel powerless to overcome an irrational fear. But Carolanne Caron, a swimming instructor and water safety expert who specializes in helping people with a fear of water, says there’s actually a strategic approach that almost invariably works: baby steps, starting with, weirdly, shampoo.
“The child should be looking up to the ceiling when washing their hair so the soap doesn’t go into their eyes,” advises Caron. “Work from the middle of the head up to the forehead with the clear water and don’t worry about it getting close to the eyes. If water does get by the eyes, don’t rub the eyes to clear but teach the child to blink their eyes three times slowly. I like to do this with scrunched eyes followed by wide eyes and ‘peek-a-boo’.”
Teaching the child to clear their eyes by blinking instead of rubbing is key. Pure water isn’t found in a pool or a lake – and once soap has been used, it isn’t in a tub, either. Rubbing the eyes after water gets in them can make it worse. The blinking trick helps kids clear their eyes, or at least helps them think they do.
“The key is to teach the blinking trick — when water gets close to the eyes, blink three times slowly and then celebrate the accomplishment of getting the eyes wet,” explains Caron. “You should never force a child to dunk their head underwater. They will do it when they are ready.”
Older kids can benefit from wetting their head piece-by-piece during bath time. Pouring a cup of clear water over each part of the head can help a child get used to the sensation, starting with the shoulders and then moving to the cheeks, closed mouth, ears, nose, and scalp. If any water splashes near the eyes, parents should encourage kids to use the blinking trick and then celebrate and congratulate them on how well they handled it. In a pool, parents can pour water over their own shoulders, cheeks, and mouth as a way to build trust.
How to Teach a Kid to Get Their Head Wet
- Start out early, and start out small. Wet parts of the head one at a time.
- Avoid getting shampoo in their eyes – the burning sensation can cause a fear of water that is hard to overcome.
- Let them dunk when they are ready. Never force it.
- Play games with bubbles, fingers, or toys underwater to encourage kids to submerge more often.
Once they ready, there’s a number of games to play with a child to help them get comfortable under the water. Teaching them to blow bubbles under the water with just their mouth, and then their whole face. Having them identify how many fingers Dad is holding under the water, or having them reach for small toy or rings in the pool, all encourage kids to submerge and give them something to focus on other than the new sensation of being underwater.
Confidence in the water isn’t the same as a skill; it only allows the skill to be developed. The kids still need to actually learn to swim. It’s still important to supervise while letting them explore – even good swimmers can get into trouble – and there’s other stuff to worry about in a pool. But parents shouldn’t worry too much. Kids can pick up on their parents’ uneasiness.
“Most of the time, the child is inadvertently taught to fear water from their parents,” explains Caron. “If the parent has a fear of the child being near the water, the child will develop that fear. So the parent needs to confront their fear so they don’t pass it along to the child.”