As with swimming lessons for any age group, learning to float on the back is one of the most essential toddler swimming skills. A child must be able to float on their back when they are older and swimming freely in the sea (or should they unexpectedly fall into deep water), and it is important to try to teach this imperative survival skill early on. It can be a life saver!
A child may need extra reassurance during this step, because the sensation can unnerve them somewhat. We recommend proceeding slowly and gently, and stopping for the time being if your child becomes scared or uncomfortable. Encourage your toddler to relax back into your arms first, and then gradually try to position one of your hands behind their head, and the other in the small of their back, offering full support. Many small children initially don’t like to put their head back into the water, and find it difficult to relax their neck. (Have a look at our article on getting the ears and face wet if this is a problem.) Don’t push the issue and reassure your toddler that you are going to support their head and won’t let them sink.
Eventually, when the child becomes comfortable in this position, you should be able to gradually decrease the level of support you are giving them. This should finally result in you taking your hands away, firstly the hand under the head, leaving just the hand supporting the back. From this position, you can gradually reduce the number of fingers with which you’re supporting, until you’re just down to one finger under their back. This can finally be withdrawn when your toddler is very confident and happy for you to do so.
It’s helpful to first practice this step where possible, in shallow water, where your toddler can touch the bottom. This helps them to feel safe. It may be necessary for you to kneel on the bottom under those circumstances.
As your toddler grows into childhood, they will learn to relax back into the water, lifting their feet off and float on their back with ease. Don’t worry if this process seems to take a long time, it’s normal, as floating on their backs can initially be a little strange for a toddler or small child. All children learn at different paces, and some may learn to float on their backs first, whilst others may learn to float on their stomachs earlier. Try to teach your toddler to roll from front to back (and vice versa), while supporting them or, (when confident with floating) standing by their side. They will soon work out that there are a great many fun activities they can pursue in the water.