Baby swimmers dive into Athenian pools

They are a strange sight in the swimming pool. For one, they have never been dipped into the water of the christening font. They can’t walk and they can only babble. Yet they can dive like top athletes. Well, sort of. Their parents are actually holding them tightly to make sure they stay afloat. More and more parents are choosing to pursue baby swimming as a way to introduce their children to exercise while spending quality time with them. «It’s something you can do with your baby and find yourself genuinely surprised at how well the infant adapts to it,» said Loukas, who has been bringing his 8-month-old son Lefteris to the pool for the last two months. «You see what your baby can do and you are just amazed. You think, ‘That’s my child.’ You don’t really care if he wants to grow up and become a swimmer because you just want him to be having a good time right now. By summer, we are going to be super stars in the pool!» Lessons take place at the polygon-shaped swimming pool at the OAKA complex. The space almost looks like a playground, with plastic toys and balls everywhere, tiny inner tubes and a giant table where parents outfit their babies in swimsuits before the lessons and change them back into their regular clothes afterward. Both mothers and fathers accompany their children as well as the occasional grandmother and even great-grandmother, though the elderly ladies often view the activity with the skepticism of the overprotective. «If I were the child’s mother I would not bring her to such a thing because she’s still very young,» said the great-grandmother of 11-month-old Rinoula. Margarita Kotzia, a gym teacher who heads the baby swimming program, says the ideal age for a baby to start lessons is 6 months. «At this age, babies do reflexive swimming motions which are innate,» she said. «When these motions are cultivated in the proper way, they become voluntary swimming motions by the time the baby reaches 11 months. With the proper stimuli and the right guidance these instinctive motions can be trained into learned, autonomous swimming by age 16 months.» Babies can learn to hold their breath underwater, she added. Most parents don’t know these facts. But when they start lessons and are informed about the positive results of the program – better sleeping, a greater range of movement and better developed emotional and social behavior – the parents become believers. Kotzia emphasizes that babies are never in danger in the pool if parents follow the right guidelines. «In fact,» she said, «younger dads go nuts bobbing in and out of the water with their babies and I have to practically drag them out of the pool so they don’t actually swim more than the babies.» Waiting list Trainers at the baby swimming class show parents how to hold their babies during the lessons. They also prepare the parents through pre-swimming exercises to make sure they know what to do if the babies get into trouble. For instance, some babies that are not used to water and so many voices and faces in the pool often cry. «But when they get used to the new faces, they don’t have a problem at all with getting into the water with us,» one of the trainers said. Many parents say they began their lessons with the idea of taking up a child-friendly hobby after years of hard work to spend quality time with their children. «I worked for 16 years at a bank and I quit so I could take care of my daughter,» said one parent. «I thought about signing up because when you stop working and you find yourself parenting a child full-time you have to find things to do because you feel trapped at home. We wanted to take up a new activity, but there aren’t many things to do in Greece, especially with a baby that is very young. So I looked until I found this program; I put myself on the waiting list and after three months I got in.» Yes, there is a waiting list to take baby swimming lessons, a fact that signals that these classes are becoming popular. Pavlos, the father of 1-year-old Tassos, told us he signed up his son before the baby was even born in order to secure a place in the baby swimming lessons. «I brought him when he was 6 months old,» Pavlos said. «I am a gym teacher and trainer so I knew about the program. It does Tassos such good. He has more reflexive stimuli since he has been in the water for so many months and he’s definitely not scared of swimming. I always swim with him. My wife gave birth to him and nursed him, but I wanted to help in his development too. It’s a great way for fathers to bond with their children, since we don’t have as many opportunities as mothers to do so.» Unlike Pavlos, Nikos has never gone into the water with his 10-month-old son Andreas because he works long hours and so the lessons are taken over by Georgia, his wife. Still, Nikos believes the program is very important. «I wish our fathers had taught us to swim this way,» he said. «I learned to swim when I was 12 years old because my mother was scared to swim even though she was born on an island, and she passed that fear onto us. We live in Nea Makri but we make sure Andreas never misses a class. Since he likes it so much we will continue to bring him here even if we are dog-tired from work. The minute you have a child, that child becomes your life.» Dimitra also makes sure to bring her 11-month-old son Nearchos to lessons no matter how tired she is. The boy has been taking baby swimming lessons for six months now. «I work near OAKA [the Olympic complex near Maroussi in the northern suburbs] but I go home to Keratea [a village east of Athens] then return to OAKA to bring him to lessons,» she said. «I don’t consider it a sacrifice at all to bring him here two times a week because I believe that it’s good for him both physically and psychologically. To be honest, I love the sea and I hope Nearchos takes after me in that. I want him to love the water as much as I do and if he became an athlete later on I would be very satisfied. I believe if parents like something, children are bound to like it too.» Parents relax Parents who watch their babies learning to swim light up with a pride you can practically see. But that doesn’t mean every parent believes their child is the next Ian Thorpe. They focus instead on more realistic successes, watching how their babies improve their physical skills, overcome their fears and develop their personalities. Many are simply happy that their children are benefiting from the first steps of exercise at such a young age. «It’s not like they’re learning to swim, exactly, at such a young age,» two parents, Ioanna and Yiannis, told us. «The water simply relaxes the baby and that is a positive thing in our case, since our little guy is quite a handful.» Parents say they also relax in the water during baby swimming lessons. «My husband relaxes so much in the pool that when he gets home he goes straight in for a nap with our daughter,» said Eleni, laughing. «Of course, isn’t it better to do this than to be shut in a room playing with the same old toys?» Many parents take this view. Christos and Leta say they would rather see their 16-month-old son kicking a little ball in the swimming pool instead of sitting in his playpen and looking at the ceiling. «We don’t even think twice about the 50 euros a month we pay for the lessons or the time required for them,» they said. «He is learning how to handle himself in the water and that is the most important thing for us.» Another couple, Constantina and Angelos, have been bringing their 1-year-old daughter Irini to baby swimming lessons for the last five months. «I get up at 6.30 a.m., take the baby to my mother’s house, go to work, come back and pick up Irini and then come here,» Constantina said. «When you see your little baby girl having so much fun you don’t consider the exhaustion of driving back and forth or anything. And we live in Pikermi [a village northeast of Athens toward Marathon].» (1) This article first appeared in the May 21 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement