I tried to teach him how to swim before he took lessons, but he learned better from an instructor.
BUT - we never use the life jacket for pond/lake swimming where she can just wade in and spend lots of time in appropriately shallow water. This is the kind of water play we do most often, so I feel like she's getting a good amount of feeling what it's like to hold her own body in the water. Lately a lot of her little friends have been bragging to her about how they can swim, and my DD replies that she doesn't know how to swim yet. I'm glad she understands that the "swimming" she does with her life vest and that her friends do with floaties is NOT the same as real swimming. I think that's really important for safety.
I'm not talking about tossing my 3 yo in the water with a floaty and tanning nearby while she figures it out. If we were boating she would be in an approved PFD, but thats a whole different issue. The floaty stuff would be for assisting in training, not for safety. Like, if she slips while wading at the lake, she's not going to drown, I'm right there- but pro would be shouldn't get as freaked out by a face full of water, cons are that it is teaching a different dynamic of how your body is in the water, I guess. I learned at the Y, with lessons, using kick boards and holding onto empty milk jugs, so that's my experience.
My mom and DH are going to have DD at a lake coming up, possibly getting a hand-me-down puddle jumper thing, although I think DH's style is more just sitting around in the shallow part of the water with her. Right now she is very into walking in water but doesn't like being, like, swished around in the water, but we also aren't the aggressive play types who do that so she has little exposure.
The swimsuits with floaty inserts sometimes turn the baby face down - super scary! I bought this one last summer, and it flipped my daughter onto her face. As I was returning it to the store, I noticed that it has 9 removeable pads. I would imagine you could remove some from the back and make it safer. But she was having so much fun swimming without it that I figured we didn't need it - I didn't want her to get dependent on a floaty if it wasn't necessary.
That being said, when she's old enough to go on Granddaddy's sailboat, she'll wear a proper life jacket. And if we take her out into the ocean (beyond ankle-deep), we want to fashion some kind of ankle tether (or a floaty vest with a tether) just in case of a rogue wave. Salt water and sunscreen make slippery babies!
I think the best thing you can do is enjoy the water with your child, as often as possible! Have fun!
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