Transcript: Discovering the Many Benefits of Infant Swimming for Both You and Your Baby

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Discovering the Many Benefits of Infant Swimming for Both You and Your Baby and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Helen Thompson: When it comes to building a bond with your little one, baby massage is a great way to do this but did you know another great way to do this, is by introducing them to water early on. In this week’s episode of First Time Mums Chat, I’m chatting with Jo Wilson. Jo is the founder of the child development programme in water, Aqua Sensory, and is a Developmental Play Practitioner, Aquatic Tutor, and author.

Jo also hosts the Aqua Sensory podcast, which I highly recommend listening to. Jo is passionate about what she does, and during our chat, you’ll hear her share some great tips and insights, including why you need to ensure that 100% of your attention is on your little one whilst they are in the water, and why multitasking mustn’t occur.

Tips on how to tell when your baby is ready to explore the water further. Why it is important to understand your baby’s cues and behaviours so you can pick up on their subtle cues. Picking up on your baby’s cues is so important.

And so, so much more.

Hi Jo and welcome to First Time Mum’s Chat. I’m delighted to be chatting with you today. We have so much in common in how we help parents communicate and build the bond and trust with their little ones. So can you start by telling us about yourself and your background?

Jo Wilson: Oh, thank you. Well, first of all, Helen, it’s so nice to connect. I am based in the UK and I have two family swim centres. It was a funny story actually how I got into swimming because I was made redundant on maternity leave and just really seeking a more meaningful role and my baby was there teaching me because we were going baby swimming and there was such a bond together that I just felt as a parent, I really, really would love to give this to other parents.

So it was it was a passion, but it came from the heart. So yeah, so that was it. First of all, being a swimming teacher, running my own classes, finding that the swim centres around weren’t suitable for baby swimming, so going out with my husband and building our own, and then being a advocator of respectful, gentle swimming. Having a little bit of a following through aqua sensory. So everything I do is about nurture, it’s about touch and water. So I bring through sensory harmony in water.

Helen Thompson: Mm, I love that, sensory harmony in water because that’s exactly what it is. I know you also encourage play in water to make it sensory and beautiful and relaxing. So how does the play side of swimming work?

Jo Wilson: So water, is naturally playful, so sometimes we forget that the benefits of water and the elements of water. It being naturally multi sensory is so important. I mean, you can’t get this from a piece of plastic. If you tapped it, it wouldn’t do anything, but tap water, splash water and it will respond, it will splash you back. How playful water can be and how immersive.

So it’s like a 3D world where we can really explore. We’re like little spacemen bobbing up and down in water. So, well, it’s one of the things I love to say, water is so, so playful naturally and babies know it. They love playing in water. So what we do is we bring that through, really helping our parents connect. Connect with themselves, connect with their baby, connect with the water, the natural playful parts.

I’m actually a developmental play practitioner. So what I love to do with my parents is educate them, not only about the benefits of water, but the benefits of how the water and play can really, really support their child’s development as well.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I did nursery nursing, which you’ll know about being from the UK and play is just so important, whether it be in the water, whether it be through baby massage, it is so important to allow our children to observe, play, and observe what they’re doing rather than telling them what to do.

I think a lot of parents are not allowing their child to do what they want to do. They interrupt that play. What you’re saying about swimming, they’re tapping the water and they’re getting a response, and they’re smiling, and they’re laughing, and they’re having fun, they’re communicating, and they’re getting to know their body. They’re getting to know, well, if I splash the water, as you say, the water will splash back at me and it’s giving them those sensory cues that they may not like the water being splashed in their face but then they may love it. I think those are two keys that are very valuable.

Jo Wilson: Yeah, definitely, because we musn’t get away from the fact that water is a life giver, but it’s also a life taker, so it’s very important that we introduce our babies and young children to water at an early age and to respect water and to educate about the benefits, but also to supervise. Always be at arm’s reach with your little one, with water.

So, as you say, some children are natural, like almost like ducks to water and others a little bit like a bit more curious or a little bit more sort of sensory sensitive and like, Oh, what’s this? Oh, this is different. Oh, I’m not too sure and that’s okay. We just introduce it in a really nice, slow and as you say, playful way, because there are so many benefits to play. It’s a child’s work, isn’t it? How our children learn through play.

Helen Thompson: Absolutely and a point you just made there about always supervising your baby in the water. I think it also teaches them about safety as well in the water. So what would you say was the safety aspects of swimming?

Jo Wilson: Yeah, so we’re able on dry land to multitask and often we have divided attention. Well, in water, it’s so different because the water demands us to have 100% attention, not divided attention and our babies and young children can feel that. They feel the presence so much more. We can’t let go of our children. So it’s very, very important, first of all, to be mindful and not to have distractions around and to be really, really fully present for our children and to be aware of their needs.

So I’m not a massive advocator of lots of buoyancy aids. I love my children to learn naturally through the water, but to understand they’re not necessarily their age, but their developmental age. So it’s almost like a window of opportunity of where they are now. So supporting them, but not over supporting them. So they really, really fully explore the water but in our presence. So we’re always there at arm reach, but we’re allowing the child to explore. We are really safety aware and safety conscious, so, for our little ones, we’re showing them where the shallow end is, where the deep end is, where there’s a ledge, how to monkey, how to climb out, how to jump in, how to turn round.

Obviously, for babies, they’re not going to be able to climb out themselves, but we’re giving them the really, really basic swim steps to learn. So, an example would be, this is the side, this is how you hold, and the parent is gently holding their hands over their hands, and they’ve got a tummy time, and knee up, so, when they are ready, that’s it. They’ve had all the basic elements from the very, very start, really. So yeah, 100% attention, not divided attention, that is what I love to let my parents know.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, there’s an interesting point there because when I used to teach swimming, I used to have parents who were overprotective. I’m not disputing those parents who are overprotective, I think that’s really important but it’s important to see what your baby wants to do and watch their cues, observe their movements to see where they’re at, because you may be timid, you may not want to push your baby because you’re scared, but your baby may not be. It’s important, I always used to say to moms, look, I know you’re scared and I know you’re timid, but if you’re timid, You’re giving that to your baby, your baby is picking up on how you’re feeling and you’ve got to take a big deep breath and let go of that so your baby can move forward. What are your views on that? Have you had parents like that and how would you support them?

Jo Wilson: Yeah, so first of all, I think you’ve made some lovely points. So what we do is we start outside the pool, really getting to know our parents and understanding their water confidence level as well because as you know, yeah, babies learn through us and they learn and we mirror and we project and that is just the way we all learn. We’ve all got mirror neurons. So, they are going to be copying and learning from us.

So, if a parent needs a little bit more support, rather than starting in the water, we start out of the water. So, we might look around and, and familiarize ourselves with the pool. We might do some breathing, we might do some grounding. So, when we are relaxed, handling our baby, our baby will be relaxed. So rather than just jumping in and starting, we’ve had that really nice relaxation point and we might start something very gentle, just walking around the pool, just with our baby and just seeing what we can see, what they can see, just watching them, feeling them and that really calms down, it co-regulates baby to parent.

You can physically see parents as well, they’re quite tight. then there’s that relaxation response. It’s like, ah, and baby as well. So the nervous systems are in sync then. It’s like, ah, so that’s what I’m doing as a facilitator. I am really helping that relaxation response and if I have some parents a little bit more on high alert, then I just know that I have to take it a little bit more gently, a little bit more slower. I have a technique which I call water dance. So I am guiding and flowing parent and baby together, like a little dance in the water. So not necessarily, this is swimming, this is front swimming, this is back swimming, this is bubbles, the first point is connection, relaxation through breath and through flow as well.

Helen Thompson: I like that. I think that’s a great way to do it. I wish I’d been mentoring when I was learning to swim through you, because I never thought of that to have time out of the water with that parent who was like that. That’s a great tip and another big point, I think, with swimming is the dunking side. Now, we’ve mentioned cues, we’ve mentioned all about talking to our babies and encouraging them through movement, but it’s this big step of actually putting our babies under the water. It’s a huge one for a baby. As we all know, babies have been in water before they were born, they were in the uterus but when they come out into the world and you put them in the water you’ve got to respect and trust that they’re okay to go under. Dunking is something that I was always taught not to do, but I was also taught just to go 1, 2, 3, right, they’re ready, let’s go. What are your thoughts on that dunking process and getting them ready to actually go under the water because some babies may be ready before others?

Jo Wilson: Yeah, so first of all, let’s start with the term dunking, because that tends to be a parent term and it’s a common one as well. So I think there’s a little bit of respect there, so I add a little bit of humor first of all, when a parent says, when am I gonna dunk my baby? So I say, well, babies aren’t biscuits, we don’t dunk!

Helen Thompson: I love that, that is brilliant.

Jo Wilson: Yeah but it’s very important to really understand your baby when they’re ready, because in actual fact, they will in fact show us and so the cues for baby could be they’re so curious. I mean, babies are naturally curious. So this is what we do. We allow their own curiosity and their own playfulness to come through. So if we’ve got our chin on the water and we’re blowing bubbles, even a baby as 6 weeks, 8 weeks, if we stick our tongue out, they will copy. We talked about mirror neurons. They’ll copy us. They might be very curious and wanna taste the water or stick their tongue in. Wow, that’s the first cues that they’re starting to really relax and want to explore their world.

We could hold them in a beautiful cradle hold and just allow, I love that word, allow the water to kiss their cheek and again, we think, oh, dunk, face in but hang on one moment, let’s take it a little bit step further. Let’s just have their cheek in the water and allow the water to just lap.

So when I’m guiding parents, there’s lots of cues around baby readily accepting the water. I’m bringing through some practices through baby massage and understanding the relaxation response. So, looking at baby’s skin color, if they’re tense, if they’re relaxed, how they’re holding their hands, how they’re holding their feet. These are all giving us signs that baby is really fully expressing themselves and relaxing in the water and loving the water. So, yeah, I love it so much better than when babies literally, they just pop their face in, down and up and that is the first cue that, yeah, baby is just so ready to, to want to explore a little bit more.

So we have something called water kiss. So exactly that, we’re allowing the water to kiss the face naturally. If we use any cups or any simple sprinkles, it’s always first of all from the back of the head, not the front of the head. I don’t condition babies. So we want the water to kiss the face. That’s the first step.

So I have a little bit of an expression. So I have a parent language. So I say, it’s water kiss, not waterfall. So that’s very important. So we’re not just pouring water. That’s not very nice. It wouldn’t be nice for us. It’s not going to be nice for baby. So water kiss, not waterfall and then when they’re perhaps on a mat and we know that baby’s really enjoying the water, then we just allow the face to have a little dip, first of all and then take it from there. So it’s a very, very slow, respectful process and baby’s leading us. Baby will let us know. So that’s what we’re looking for.

Helen Thompson: I love that because when I was training to be a baby swimming instructor, it was very much you watched if their baby was blinking, if their eyes were blinking and ready and if that happened and we used to get a tiny bucket like a cup and you poured that gently over the water. You give them a cue of right, 1, 2, 3.

Jo Wilson: Yeah.

Helen Thompson: And then watching them and seeing how they were responding to it. I love what you say about the kiss because babies do respond.

Jo Wilson: They do.

Helen Thompson: I have a little story about that. Recently, I was watching a grandmother, because we do B& B, and there was a grandmother who was talking to her baby, and the baby was only about 6 weeks, maybe 8 weeks old, and she was telling her little baby a story about her grandfather who was deceased and the little baby was just watching her and babbling back and really responding, using her lips and trying to talk back to her grandmother and it was just so beautiful to watch. I’ve actually done a podcast on that, the power of communication and the power of talking to your baby and watching their responses. It was just a delight to see and I think in the water, you can probably see that as well. What really got to me was just watching the baby. I wasn’t watching the grandmother. I was watching the baby and you could see the connection that the baby had with her grandmother.

She was just babbling and sort of laughing and people say babies can’t communicate, but that is a prime example. That to me is just what we’re talking about, when we’re communicating with our babies. It’s watching them and as you said, sticking out their tongue. Babies do everything. If you mimic them, they’ll do the same. I’ve seen babies singing with their dad. Their dad will be singing them a nursery rhyme and they’ll be doing it in their own way. They may not be using words, but they’re making words and understanding what the dad’s saying.

Jo Wilson: Yeah. They’re almost like little conductors, aren’t they? As their little bodies are singing in tune as well.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, that’s why I love what you said about just taking it slowly and the singing in the water, it’s just lovely. I think that is what babies love and I think that’s the essence to a really good swimming instructor.

Jo Wilson: Yeah, it’s respect.

Helen Thompson: And trust as well, trusting yourself but also trusting your baby’s instincts, they know what they want to do and respecting them for who they are.

Jo Wilson: Yeah, definitely, absolutely. I think what we’ve got to do is acknowledge the educators and the knowledge before us and I really respect everybody who came before me, but there are new ways and there are different practices and I think baby is there to let us know. So, as you said, the sort of the cup pouring is, is still sometimes used, but it’s a conditioning method and I think what we just need to remind ourselves that it’s very much adult led and a baby has to then react on an external cue and it’s not self directed. It’s not coming from them. So yes, you will get a response, but it’s not a natural response. So what can sometimes happen with that is that whilst babies are accepting or we believe they’re readily accepting because they’re somatic. They are not just seeing but they’re feeling, their whole body sensations are feeling and it’s actually interpreting right down to cellular level as well.

So we don’t really know if the fear response, a very subtle fear response is there, but it’s been overridden really. Then what can tend to happen is when they’re 2 and 3 and they’re verbal, that’s when they suddenly say no and it’s like, oh, hang on a minute, this baby used to love it but that’s just at that moment in time. So we can actually almost hinder the learn to swim journey if it isn’t on baby’s terms because it’s a somatic process, they’re feeling it, they are literally interpreting right down into all of their cells, their hearts, so it’s creating a neurological response as well and releasing of hormones.

These are things that we just can’t see. So, as you say, so, so important to really understand baby cues and behavior and baby will really be telling us. So, sometimes subtle cues and other times big cues. Yeah, so important.

Helen Thompson: Something I saw on your website and I just want to share this bit, Listening to Babies in Water. I’m just going to read this out.

‘ I love water and being with you. Water reminds me of my first home, different from this big and bright. where everything is new. So take it real slow. I need to know you are there. I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your soft voice. I feel your care.’

I just love this and it’s exactly what we’re talking about.

‘Water allows me to move and feel free. I can unfold in water. Together we can simply be. ‘

When I read that I thought that is just so beautiful and that to me is the essence of what water and sensory play is. I just read it and it really gelled with me because I was a swimming instructor myself. When I read that, it really, really gelled with me and it brings in what we said about not forcing a baby if they’re not ready. Just to sing with them and let them tell us what they want. I just loved that. I just wanted to share that with my audience, if you don’t mind, because I just thought it was so beautiful.

Jo Wilson: Oh, thank you. I love expressing myself through poems and words and I was really fortunate. I had a bit of a long flight and it just flowed out. So I wrote a little parent guide called ‘Bath Babies’ and it’s just helping parents to really reframe water in a different way, in a really respectful way and bonding way. So it’s called ‘ Beautiful Bonds in Water through Bath Babies’. Yeah, I love to sort of gift words into the world. Words can touch us in so many different ways.

Helen Thompson: Oh, definitely. So if anybody wants to find out more about how you teach swimming and if they want to come to any of your classes in the UK, because I’m assuming you don’t have any online courses because swimming is not about online. It’s got, it’s very much a one on one group activity. How do people get in touch with you?

Jo Wilson: Yeah, so I do have swim centers in the UK. It’s called Swimworks, but very much my passion is online, educating parents and professionals, and that’s called Aqua Sensory. So what a lot of my work is now is because I do teach in a very different way, in a sensory way. I share my work through Aqua Sensory and there’s different courses.

So if anybody’s interested as a swimming teacher, and they think I actually would love to teach in a different way through sensory, harmony, water, so I have a program called Aqua Sensory Program and then there’s Bath Babies where I can help parents and educators become Bath Babies teachers.

So it’s really sharing passion and knowledge and As I say, guiding. I don’t really like the word ‘teach’ in a way. I like facilitate and guide in it. I always say I don’t teach or tell or I don’t insist I invite. So yeah, yeah, get in touch. Aqua Sensory is there to receive for everybody.

Helen Thompson: Oh, thank you. Been lovely having you on this podcast. As I said before, when you interviewed me, it’s nice that we have that connection between swimming and baby massage. It’s nice to be able to talk to somebody and relate these to support first time mums to see the value of touch. It doesn’t have to be through baby massage, which is wonderful, but it can also be through swimming and sensory like you do. So thank you, Jo, for being here. I really, really enjoyed talking to you.

Jo Wilson: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Helen Thompson: Jo shared some great insights, and I hope you find her passion for introducing a little one to the water as moving as I did. I’ve included links to her website, social media, her new book, and the Aqua Sensory podcast in the episode show notes, which can be found at

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Next week I’ll be talking with Laura Tate, who pioneered a step by step program to help mums of kids newly diagnosed with celiac (gluten intolerance issues), about how she supports parents of children affected by this condition. Be sure to listen to this episode when it comes out next week, and please subscribe to First Time Mum’s Chat via your favourite platform so you can get quick and easy access to all our episodes when they are live.