Do Babies Know How to Hold Their Breath Underwater?
One of the many wonders of tiny humans is that babies appear equipped with some impressive innate reflexes right from birth. You may have heard claims that infants have the ability to hold their breath when submerged in water. But is this truly an instinct all babies are born with?
Let’s dive into the research on newborns underwater to find out if breath holding capabilities are present from the start. We’ll also discuss when babies can intentionally hold their breath, safety precautions, risks of very early swimming, and tips for parents considering infant water introduction.
Do Newborns Automatically Hold Their Breath Underwater?
There are conflicting stances on whether all newborns instinctively hold their breath when immersed in water. Some infant water survival programs claim babies demonstrate an innate “infant swim reflex” from birth through around 6 months of age.
Proponents of newborn water introduction believe all babies will reflexively hold their breath, turn face up, and paddle when submerged – abilities that decline without regular practice. However, the research is inconclusive on these claims.
Here’s what we do know:
- Newborns exhale when their faces hit water, then reflexively close the epiglottis to prevent inhaling water.
- Breath holding duration varies widely and is unpredictable in newborns.
- Infants can only intentionally hold breath for 3-6 seconds, less thanneeded to self-rescue.
- Babies lack head control and often inhale water when tilted back or submerged.
While newborns demonstrate some primitive reflexes, true breath holding skills appear to develop later, along with coordination and muscle strength needed for swimming movements. For this reason, major health organizations recommend against immersion in water for babies under 1 year old.
When Can Babies Voluntarily Hold Their Breath?
Infants start developing the ability to consciously hold their breath and close their airways around 4-6 months old. However, voluntary breath control remains limited in young babies. Expectations for breath holding ability include:
- 2 months – Can hold breath for up to 3 seconds
- 6 months – May last 5-10 seconds
- 9 months – Breath holding improves to 10 seconds
- 1 year – Voluntarily holds for 15-30 seconds
Being able to consistently hold breath for 30 seconds is generally viewed as a minimum safety standard before introducing babies to underwater swimming. This doesn’t typically happen until after the first birthday.
Is Infant Water Survival Training Advisable?
Some organizations offer “infant survival” swim lessons starting with newborns as young as 6 months. However, major pediatric groups strongly caution against lessons for babies under age 1. Dangers include:
- Inhaling water into the lungs
- Developing hypothermia
- Insufficient strength to turn over or get to the side
- Failing to hold breath long enough during submersion
- False sense of safety leading to lax supervision
While it’s admirable for parents to want to equip babies with survival skills as early as possible, ultra-early water introduction appears to put infants at unnecessary risk. There are no substitutes for vigilant adult supervision and barriers around water hazards.
Safe Swimming Guidelines By Age
If you want to introduce swimming skills, pediatricians recommend following these age-based safety precautions:
- Under 1 year: No organized swim lessons. Limit water to sponge baths and shallow warm tubs. Always hold infants in the water and stay within arm’s reach.
- 1 year: Can attempt short, gentle submersion in parents’ arms to get comfortable. Avoid forcing underwater.
- 2 years: Begin intro to swim lessons if interested, with parents constantly touching/holding them.
- 3-4 years: Start individual or parent-child swim classes. Should be developmentally ready but proceed based on child’s cues.
- 5 years: Independent swim lessons may be appropriate for some children depending on coordination and focus. Receive training on proper entry/exit and flotation first.
While children develop swimming capabilities at varied paces, following these rough benchmarks helps maintain safety based on age-typical physical abilities and cognitive understanding. Never rely on young kids to “float” or paddle effectively to protect themselves in the water.
Providing Cautious Water Play for Infants
Though formal swimming lessons have risks for babies under age 1, experts do acknowledge that early, careful water exposure can help infants become comfortable in aquatics environments.
Some parent-supervised water play ideas include:
- Baths in warm (not hot) shallow water
- Letting hands/feet splash during bath time
- Very brief dunks while holding baby
- Sitting in the tub or pool together, keeping baby above water
- Water Sensory tables for scooping and pouring
- Water play centers with fountains and sprayers on a playground
Focus on making water experiences happy, with parents providing full support. Never force babies into positions they resist. Discontinue any activity that causes distress. Drowning remains a leading cause of accidental death for infants – constant vigilance is key.
Frequently Asked Questions About Babies Holding Breath Underwater
Here are some common questions parents have about infants and breath holding:
Do all babies instinctively hold their breath underwater from birth? No, controlled studies show newborns have variable responses when submerged, including inhaling water. They lack ability to consistently hold breath or demonstrate “infant swimming reflexes”.
Is it safe to do “infant survival swim lessons” starting under 1 year old? Major health organizations strongly recommend against any formal swim lessons before age 1 due to drowning risks. Early lessons do not reduce drowning. Focus on safe play and wait until age 2+ to start introductory swim classes.
How long can a 9 month old hold their breath underwater? On average, a 9 month old may be able to voluntarily hold their breath underwater for around 10 seconds. But because abilities vary so much in infants, any underwater activities require parents to constantly support babies to prevent inhaling water.
What are signs my baby is ready to learn swimming skills? Look for interest in water play, ability to hold head upright, sitting independently, following basic directions, and showing readiness signs like intently watching other kids swim. But keep their age, coordination, and your comfort level in mind when deciding on introductory swim lessons.
Should we practice breath holding during baths? Intentional breath holding practice during baths is unnecessary and too advanced for infants. Make bath time fun and comfortable without focusing on submerging baby’s head or forcing any breath control. Keep a hand behind their head at all times for support and safety.
While the idea of babies possessing innate swimming reflexes is appealing, science shows breath holding skills and swimming movements take months to develop. And no training can replace constant parental supervision around water. Early, careful water play allows infants to explore aquatic environments while building comfort and confidence. But leave formal swimming lessons until at least age 2, or when your particular child shows developmental readiness. As long as in-water activities feel happy and voluntary for babies, some gentle intro can start building a foundation for eventual swim capability – and memories to last a lifetime.