Small children often have a passion for cold water unrivalled by anyone other than ice swimmers. Swimmer Clare Holway passes on tips gleaned from taking her two and three year olds outdoor swimming with her.
A keen swimmer, my main concern about getting back into open water when I had a young family (aside from mustering the energy and reacclimatising to the cold!) was safety. Once children are a bit older and more independent there are fewer limitations when it comes to enjoying cold water, but with babies and toddlers there is more to consider. Here are my top tips for both make it safe and making it fun when it comes to swimming with toddlers:
There are a number of natural features that can make a swim spot fun for children. Places that have an area to run around in, such as a grassy field or sandy beach, mean children can play away from the water’s edge. Places with sheltered areas where you can take refuge if it’s a windy day, or shade, so you can protect children from sunburn on hot days, are ideal and will make for a successful trip.
This might sound obvious, but the general rule for us nearer the swim the better – both in terms of proximity to home, and the carpark. If you are travelling by car to do your swim, choose a spot with a carpark that is close to where you will get in, so that you can save energy and patience you might otherwise use up on walking for the swimming itself.
Avoid water with strong currents; children are not safe swimming in strong currents as there is a risk of being swept away. Toddlers paddling in the shallows may not have the weight or strength to stay upright if the current is very strong. Ideal waters are calm seas, river pools or lakes. Look for places that slope gradually into the deeper water and avoid steep-sided rivers and beaches that shelve. Sandy or fine gravelled ground make paddling and entering the water more comfortable for little feet and reduce the risk of children falling over. Wildswim.com is a good online reference.
Often, for toddlers and younger children, the wild swim experience is more about paddling and splashing around in the water than swimming. Choosing a swim with gentle shallows gives them a bit more freedom to play and explore the water in a safer environment. Our children have had endless fun wading about in bare feet or wellies with buckets and spades and fishing nets.
Team up with friends, family and fellow swimmers so you have a ratio of 1:1 when entering the water. Children who are confident swimmers in the pool may react differently in colder wilder water; make sure that there’s enough of you to look after them all.
While many a child delights in a cold hose, or cold dowsing, children are more susceptible to the cold than adults. They may tell you if they’re cold, but they may be too busy playing – signs to look out for are blue lips and shivering. Children who are shy of cold water may be encouraged in by holding them against you as they enter the water – not only do they feel safe, but the shared body heat is a comfort as they get used to their new surroundings. Toddlers may best be encouraged to enjoy the water by paddling in the shallows; for older children going in to swim. Wearing a wetsuit and a swim cap will help them retain heat. Knowing and looking for the signs of hypothermia, which can be life threatening, is wise. It affects children if their body temperature drops below 35°C and signs include cold skin, tiredness, fast breathing, continuous shivering, confusion and changes in behaviour.
Children can also be more likely than adults to fall victim to illnesses from swimming in poor quality water, so consider how clean the water is before you commit to getting in. One rule of thumb is that the higher the stream, the purer the water – but you can gain more detailed information from The Environment Agency. They assess water quality at designated bathing sites; ratings classify water quality as excellent, good, sufficient or poor based on measurements taken over a four year period. Whatever the water quality, make sure you cover any cuts with waterproof plasters to avoid infection, avoid swallowing water and always ensure children wash their hands thoroughly when they get out and particularly before they start to eat a picnic. A good tip is to carry a small bottle of antibacterial hand gel, in case there isn’t a tap nearby.
Open water can often be unpredictable or hold hidden hazards such as deep holes, large rocks or discarded objects. To avoid your children coming across these, wade in to check the waters yourself before they get in.
While taking an outdoor dip with your toddlers in tow may take a bit more planning, it is totally worth the effort. If you take them with you, you get to keep on swimming and share your love of the water, the adventure and the great outdoors.