Baby swimming: exploring the effects of early
intervention on subsequent motor abilitiescch_990428..430
H. Sigmundsson* and B. Hopkins†‡
*Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
†Department of Psychology & Centre for Research in Human Development, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK, and
‡Human Movement Science Programme, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
Accepted for publication 5 May 2009
University of Science and
Aim The aim of the study was to explore the effects of baby swimming on subsequent motor
Background A range of motor abilities was examined in 4-year-old children who had previously
participated in a programme of baby swimming (n=19) and compared with a matched group of
coevals who had not had this experience (n=19).
Results As predicted from the nature of the exercises that comprise the programme,the effects of
baby swimming were restricted to abilities associated with prehension and balance.
Conclusions Suggestions are made as to how the theme of this hypothesis-generating,
demonstration study can be pursued in the future with more rigorous experimental controls and
applications to children with disabilities and impairments.
Cross-cultural studies have shown that subjecting infants to
circumscribed or general forms of physical exercise facilitates
the development of fundamental motor abilities or motor mile-
stones (e.g. Hopkins & Westra 1988). There is experimental
evidence to support this effect (McGraw 1935; Lagerspetz et al.
1971; Zelazo et al. 1972).
Are there other forms of physical exercise, not addressed by
these studies, that may enhance motor development? One
potential candidate is baby swimming. In recent years,there has
been an upsurge of interest among parents in providing their
infants with this aquatic-based type of early experience, espe-
cially in Iceland where there is a long-standing commitment to
the beneﬁts of swimming due in part to the ready availability of
The present study compares the motor abilities of Icelandic
children at 4 years of age who experienced baby swimming
exercises at 2 to 3 months age with a matched sample of those
who did not. Taking into account that the swimming routine
provides vigorous vestibular stimulation as well as promoting
eye–hand co-ordination (see below), we predicted that any
effects at 4 years would be most clearly manifest in tasks involv-
ing balancing and prehensile abilities.
A questionnaire was sent to the parents of 63 children living in
Reykjavik who had participated in a programme of baby
swimming lessons for 2 h a week over a period of at least 4
months, some 4 to 5 years previously. Among other things, it
requested information about the frequency and length of time
the child had received swimming lessons. On this basis, 19
children (10 boys, nine girls) were selected as having
received the requisite amount of swimming experience. A
similar questionnaire was delivered to all parents of 4-year-old
Child: care, health and development
Original Article doi:10.1111/j.1365-2214.2009.00990.x
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
children (n=410) currently attending the 15 nursery schools
from which the swimming experience group was assembled.
Accordingly, 19 children with no experience of baby swim-
ming were selected, matched with the previous group for age,
sex and parental level of education and socio-economic status.
The mean ages for the ‘swimming’ and ‘no swimming’ groups
were 4.72 years (SD =0.235) and 4.47 years (SD =0.241)
Baby swimming routine
The majority of children taking part in baby swimming do so
between the ages of 2 to 7 months, with 1-h sessions carried
out in a water temperature of 35°C. A session begins with a
‘warm-up’ in which the parents sing to their children while
moving them through the water and encouraging them to
stand supported on a hand. Subsequently, an instructor assists
the child in completing somersaults on a thin mattress ﬂoating
on the water, diving under water, providing encouragement to
pick up rings ﬂoating on the water and jumping from a sup-
ported position on the side of the pool into the water. During
the last 10 min, the parents again balance the infants on a
hand and bring them into reaching distance of objects ﬂoating
on the water.
Assessment of motor ability
At 4 years of age, each child was tested on the standardized
Movement Assessment Battery for Children in a quiet room in
their nursery school for the following abilities (Henderson &
Sugden 1992): manual dexterity (posting coins, threading
beads, bicycle trail), ball skills (catching bean bag, roll-
ing ball into goal) and balance (one-leg balance, jumping
over a cord, walking with heels raised). Raw scores were
converted to scale scores according to the norms for child-
ren aged 4 to 6 years, with the higher the score the poorer
the performance. Comparisons among the two groups of
children were made with the Mann–Whitney U-test (one-
There was no difference in overall performance (see Table 1),
but there were two signiﬁcant contrasts between the‘swimming’
and the ‘no swimming’ groups: one involving prehension (Ball
skills sub-test, P<0.05) and the other static balance (one-leg
balance item on the Balance sub-test, P<0.017). Both out-
comes, favouring the swimming group,were in accordance with
the predicted effects of being exposed to regular sessions of baby
Children experiencing a regular programme of baby swimming
at 2 to 7 months of age manifested superior motor performance
on a standardized, age-appropriate test as 4-year-olds relative to
Table 1. Mean values and standard deviations (SD) on Movement ABC items for Icelandic 4-year-old children [19 in the experimental (Exp.) group
and 19 in the control group]
Exp. n=19 Control n=19
P*CI†Mean SD Mean SD
Total score 4.7 3.5 6.5 4.3 ns. -4.40 to 0.77
Manual dexterity 0.5 1.0 0.4 0.7 ns. -0.45 to 0.76
Posting coins 0.1 0.4 0.2 0.6 ns. -0.39 to 0.28
Threading beads 0.4 0.9 0.1 0.3 ns. -0.16 to 0.79
Bicycle trail 0 0 0.1 0.4 ns. -0.32 to 0.11
Ball skills 2.8 1.6 3.8 2.5 0.05 -2.38 to 0.38
Catching bean bag 2.2 1.6 2.9 2.0 ns. -1.87 to 0.50
Rolling ball into goal 0.6 0.9 0.9 1.3 ns. -1.08 to 0.44
Balance 1.5 2.2 2.3 2.5 ns. -2.32 to 0.79
One-leg balance 0.02 0.1 0.4 0.8 0.017 -0.80 to 0.01
Jumping over cord 1.5 2.2 1.7 2.0 ns. -1.60 to 1.17
Walking heels raised 0 0 0.2 0.5 ns. -0.39 to 0.08
*Mann–Whitney U-test (one tailed).
†CI: 95% conﬁdence interval of the difference between the means.
ns., not signiﬁcant.
Baby swimming 429
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Child: care, health and development,36,3, 428–430
a matched group of coevals without such experience. As pre-
dicted from the fact that the programme targets activities
promoting eye–hand co-ordination and the provision of vesti-
bular stimulation, outcomes converged on abilities associated
with prehension and static balance.
While baby swimming may have rather speciﬁc effects in the
motor domain, its potential beneﬁts should also be explored in
other areas of relevance to child development. Examples are
parental attitudes, cardiovascular ﬁtness and physical growth,
and expressions of self-esteem. In fact, it may be possible to
conceive of a testable scenario in which baby swimming exerts
beneﬁcial inﬂuences in these respects that in turn promote
successful adjustment to the transition from home to formal
The beneﬁts of aquatic therapy have been extolled with
regard to individuals suffering from asthma (Rosimini 2003)
and autism (Yilmaz et al. 2004), but especially those with
cerebral palsy (Kelly & Darrah 2005). Children with the
latter disability (as well as typically developing during early
childhood) can beneﬁt in two ways from aquatic therapy.
First, the buoyancy provided by water has not only the pot-
ential for facilitating full or partial range of movement, but
also postural control through a reduction in gravitational
effects. Second, the density of water (1 g/cm3)isabout800
times more than that of air, thus serving as a resistive medium
to promote muscle power without excessive loading of the
The present study did not involve random assignment of
individuals to groups. This limitation, together with relatively
small sample sizes and a retrospective design, detracts from the
efﬁcacy of the study. Nevertheless, we contend that it serves as
an encouraging demonstration project as to the potential ben-
eﬁts of baby swimming. Better understanding of baby swim-
ming and its close cousin aquatic therapy can only be achieved
with resort to a greater methodological rigour in future studies
that aspires to Sackett’s (1981) Level I (randomized controlled
trials) or at the very least Level II (non-randomized prospective
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• Physical exercise facilitates the development of motor skill
• Baby swimming programme may have positive effects on
motor skill development
• Baby swimming programme targets activities promoting
eye–hand coordination and the provision of vestibular
• Baby swimming may have rather speciﬁc effects in the
motor domain, its potential positive beneﬁts should also be
explored in other areas of relevance for child development
430 H. Sigmundsson and B. Hopkins
© 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Child: care, health and development,36,3, 428–430