Little Splashers Get in Touch
A few months ago I was contacted by Jo Wilson, a Baby-Swim Instructor (www.littlesplashers.co.uk), who asked me about infant reflexes that she’d seen many times in the pool. We’ve had several conversations about what she’d noticed and how this related to the perspective of her baby-swim training. Our conversations led me back to researching and reflecting on the ‘swimming’ movement patterns we see. I wanted to get to the detail of some specific elements of our early movement, and reflect on how this is affected by being in the water. I’ve observed a couple of baby swim sessions, and have found it fascinating to make sense of what I’ve seen. You can see some examples of baby’s movement in water here:
My take on what I’m seeing comes from my Somatic Movement Therapy training (www.ibmt.co.uk) that draws on Body Mind Centering ® together with my wider study of paediatric neurological development, and my work with JABADAO’s Developmental Movement Play approach. And my notes here represent just a beginning – lots to learn and experience.
Observing children in the pool, it can sometimes be difficult to pin point exactly what we’re seeing. For one, it can be very quick, and a lot can be happening. It takes experience to know where a movement is initiated, or what specifically is providing the stimulation – whether that’s conscious or unconscious. Infant developmental movement and reflexes are a huge area of study – I’ve only touched on a couple of areas here. But having an awareness of how the reflexes and early movement patterns underpin movement, can help us enormously in being able to see, name and value a child’s stage of development.
Gravity & Myelin
When we’re born, one of our first tasks is to deal with gravity, and manage the weight of our large heads and heavy brains. Our initial movement is largely spontaneous, as our limbs move, triggering sensation, which leads to further movement. The activation of our motor and sensory nerves stimulates myelin to be laid down over the nerve fibres. This white fatty substance enables nerve impulses to pass quickly and efficiently, and over time, we are more consciously able to control our movement.
The movements we see in baby swimming will depend on the maturity of a child’s nervous system, plus their general disposition and personality. A younger child will be moving more from a reflexive base, an older one more able to take conscious control of their movement.
Gravity and Water
I’m really struck by the challenges babies face in managing their balance in water. Their equilibrium responses are stimulated big time! On land, babies are dealing with the constant of gravity and a stable supporting earth. In water, their shifts in weight, turns and reaches are in a whole new realm. Even though they came from the fluid filled womb, in a pool babies aren’t held or contained by the mother’s body, or anchored by the umbilicus. Much of our functional movement is underpinned by stability enabling mobility. So in water, the stable base is no more. However, when movement is about travelling, the body weight is supported externally in water and whole bodied movement becomes possible in a new way. So much stimulation and exploration becomes possible in water – intense exercise to core muscles, a flood of sensory stimulation, particularly to our vestibular (balance & orientation) and proprioceptive (co-ordination) systems.
The Patterns in Splashing About.
In the pool, Developmental Movement patterns can be clearly seen, involving whole bodied, spinal movement:
- sometimes this is symmetrical (homologous, arms moving in sync, legs moving in sync, upper and lower body movement),
- sometimes asymmetrical (homolateral, right and left sides of the body doing alternate movement)
These are the movement patterns we can see on land too, that form the basis for our later belly crawling, crawling and walking.
Under water I’m struck by how the lower body often seems more active than upper body. The thrust from the tail, like a fish, along the spine, as the head reaches forward, propelling a child through the water. This, combined with any movement of the arms and legs is what I understand swim teachers refer to as the ‘amphibian reflex’.
I also notice how for younger children, they have yet to fully develop the reach of their arms, which when moving forward through the water, move by their sides rather than in front. We see something similar when children are supported under their tummies. This can often stimulate the Landau Reflex, where the muscular tone of the back surface of the body brings the head and feet up. For children the process of myelination may not yet have fully reached their extremities, to enable conscious co-ordinated movement of the limbs. And I wonder if when in the water, earlier, more primitive, movement patterns are stimulated, more orientated around the spine rather than limbs. It is when children’s nervous systems are more mature, that they can then begin to bring conscious controlled movement into their upper limbs needed for swimming. So it is then that the Landau position can be over-ridden, and the shoulders bring the arms forward, ready for conventional swimming.
For me, in beginning to get an understanding of baby swimming theory from discussion with Little Splashers, it uncovered the various views and opinions that we can have, that lead to sometimes different, sometimes similar language being used to describe the same movement. And, in the rush to name and describe, we can so easily miss the detail, and also lose the opportunity to ‘be with’, supporting the individual ebbs and flows of development.
Wallowing in Water
So as adults there’s a time when we need to wait – avoiding striving for change and for ‘proper’ swimming to begin. We need to enjoy hanging out with where a child is up to, letting new neurological wiring to settle, before they are ready to go onto the next stage of development. There is much to be gained here, for both parent and child, with the potential to revisit the watery world of in-utero development, explore bonding, attachment, separation and freedom. The potential to heal, resolve and play.
A child’s individual development might come through slight differences from one side of the body to the other, or younger movement being returned to in an older child. We each have a unique way we respond to the challenges of our moving bodies and developing sensory systems. The pool environment gives another opportunity for a baby to know itself, as it moves and senses, exploring other connections between movement, self and the world around.
Observing babies and young children in water, I can see all the individual variations of movement that I see on land, as they make their way through their early movement development. The different degree that children hold-on to parents, are self-supporting, or need to be held. This in part will be due to the stage of development of the child – from how integrated their vestibular, proprioceptive and visual systems are. And may also be to do with how safe a child feels. This will be influenced by the level of attachment a child has generally in their parent – Are their arms ones that I can trust, and in-tune with what I need? Will they catch me, or do I need to catch myself? Have I got the freedom to explore edges, or am I held back? Complex somatic material, all being worked out, for both parent and child.
I’d be really interested to hear what parents’ and carers’ experiences are, of simply being in the water with their child. As they offer support, and allow for freedom of movement, it would be fascinating to notice what movements appear and are felt in close body contact. This sensing and tuning in between parent and child, lingering without a specific goal, can be immensely valuable. It can enable a child to get many of the sensory ‘nutrients’ they need to establish the foundations for movement both in the pool, and on land.
Comments welcome – You can get in touch with Paul here.
Photos Courtesy of www.littlesplashers.co.uk