Toddler fears can be tricky, but a fear of water can be scary for parents, too.
It was a cloudless, 90 degree May day in Mexico. The rectangular infinity pool in the back yard sparkled, a turquoise oasis offering an escape from the desert heat. I stood under an umbrella lathering myself with sunscreen, dying for a dip. Instead, I was watching toddler drama.
“NO! I not going to fwim!” came my 2-year-old son’s screech from atop the first step. James stood puffing his little belly out underneath his electric yellow rash guard, his anger reddening his cheeks beneath a white smear of baby sunscreen. My husband, Scott, was waist-deep in the pool, holding out his hands to coax our son inside.
“C’mon buddy! We had so much fun when we swam last summer! What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to!”
“I. NOT. GOING. FWIMMMIIIIIIIING!!!!” We had entered full meltdown. I sprang into distraction mode, grabbing the plastic boats and squirt toys I’d hauled all the way from home. It was no use. This child was not going anywhere near the water. Not that day. Not the next day. And not the day after that. Thank goodness for the sand at the beach, otherwise we’d have spent the whole vacation watching Paw Patrol.
Don’t worry, it’s totally normal.
James had taken swim lessons on and off since infancy, so this sudden fear of water came as a total shock. It turns out this was James’ first inexplicable toddler fear. Like the proverbial monster under the bed, many toddlers often develop a sudden and unexplained fear of water at around two years old. But what can we as parents do to help them overcome it? For us, it took a year to get James comfortable in the pool. But after countless meltdowns and a lot of trial and error, I’m proud to say that he’s now actually swimming! So in the name of sparing you a lot of tears and frustration, I thought I’d share our story.
Here are 5 simple steps to help your child overcome his fear of water:
Lead by example.
Your child will never learn to love the water if he sees you prancing around the pool complaining that it’s too cold, or acting afraid to ruin your blowout. (I’m actually describing myself here.) Splash around with your significant other. Blow blasts of water through a pool noodle. Do underwater flips and summersaults. Show your child that he’s missing out if he doesn’t conquer his fear of water and join the fun. In our case, watching Scott swim underwater was what eventually lured James into the shallow end to watch.
Get him in the water every day.
Unless you live in paradise, you likely won’t be taking your child swimming 365 days a year. But find a period of at least a week and shoot for daily lessons. Be prepared for tears for at least the first three days. As with sleep training, it’s just part of the process. Eventually they’ll realize that “hey, nothing bad is happening” and start having fun.
We’re fortunate because our community rec center offers daily classes in 10-day blocks, and we also have access to a fabulous swim instructor while we’re on vacation. The classes we did at the rec center were enough to get James interested in going into the water a year ago, although he still didn’t want to put his face all the way in. That came with a combo of great instruction and goggles, which I’ll get to later.
Don’t push too hard.
While it will certainly take a firm stance to keep your child in the pool those first few lessons, you’ll only exacerbate his fear if you force him to stay in the water for too long. Ditto for acting excited, nervous, or angry. I noticed that our vacation swim instructor always spoke in a calm, quiet voice except when he was congratulating James on an accomplishment. When I used this technique, he was much more willing to join me in the pool, and to stay for longer.
It’s also important not to force your child to stay in the water for too long if he’s upset. He may only be able to do five minutes the first time. That’s okay! James only lasted 10 minutes when his fear of water was at its worst. We slowly increased his pool time in 5 minute increments until he could tolerate a 20-minute class.
Make it fun.
As with most toddler behavioral challenges, distraction is the name of the game when it comes to fear of water. Splash a lot, squirt water with your hands, do cannon balls into the pool, and make silly noises while blowing bubbles. Unleash your inner child and meet your son or daughter at his level. This is where the magic happens.
The instructor we met while on vacation was a true child whisperer. He wove songs, splashing, and jokes into his lessons whenever he thought James might be zoning out. Not only did this interest him in staying in the pool, it helped establish the water as an outdoor play space. Within days of starting this technique, James was actually asking us to go swimming – something he’d never done before.
Make him more comfortable.
While the air is warm, the water is usually cool. That unfamiliar contrast can feel weird for a kiddo who’s used to warm baths in a heated room. A friend of mine from mom’s group suggested we try a wetsuit to help James stay warm. Scott is a surfer, so he wore his wetsuit so James would want to copy him. This helped us start extending James’ trips into the shallow end.
The next piece of the puzzle was using peer pressure to our advantage. We scheduled pool play dates with cousins and older kids and pointed out that they weren’t afraid of the water. Then we offered James a floaty and told him he could be a big boy and swim independently with his older friends as long as he wore it. We kept using the phrase “the water will hold you.” The older kids egged James on as he timidly climbed down the steps into the pool. Within minutes, he was swimming around, kicking his legs furiously while he smiled triumphantly. “Look! The water IS holding me!” he yelled.
The final hurdle in overcoming James’ fear of water was teaching him to put his head under. By this time, he was three years old and very verbal, so he was able to tell me that he didn’t like being unable to see. Enter, goggles! At first, he was resistant. I finally convinced him to wear them by holding them up to his eyes in the shower. Once he realized they kept the water out, he was happy to wear them in the pool. Within days, our fearful toddler was transformed into a little fishy!
I hope these steps are as helpful to you as they have been for us. If you’re a seasoned mom with wisdom to share, please tell your story in the comments below. We can all benefit from your experience!