From Understanding Infants Reaction . . . to Secure Attachment 

by Ilona Autti-Rämö, MD from Finland

Infant swimming is started in various countries at various ages depending on the aims of the activity and the philosophic background.   The aims may indeed vary from a goal-directed swimming lesson to a family-oriented social event.  However, in every country on main aim should be to teach the parents to support their individual child in a new learning situation.

Infant swimming is mostly started by the age of 3 to 4 months.  Slightly before, by the age of 8 to 12 weeks the infant is able to discriminate among people and begins to build expectations of how the human environment will respond.  To cope with new environment, people and various activities, the infant has to develop his/her ways to cope with all the surrounding information.  Infant swimming includes both known and unknown elements of life that the infant has to interpret and integrate in order to be able to adapt his motor, sensory, perceptual, emotional and  cognitive behavior.  Each of these abilities develop in their individual speed - There is no such infant that would develop on all fields at average speed.  In order to find swimming an enjoyable activity it is important that infant swimming instructors do learn to analyze not  only the motor behavior but also the other developmental aspects - sensation, emotion, cognition, perception, attention and arousal - that affect the infants ability to experiment his/her body in the water.  Many infants do indeed have slight difficulties in at least one of the mentioned developmental aspects which may cause fear or stress in an unfamiliar situation.  Children with abnormal development ranging from minor brain dysfunction to permanent major motor disorder or mental retardation have not only difficulties in certain developmental aspects but also in their ability to integrate the information perceived.  It is to be remembered that up to 10% or even more of infants do show deviations from normal development during their infancy - in some the signs are transient but in others not.

How does a child cope with a new situation?  At every moment the child perceives a huge amount of information through his/her sensory system both from his/her outside world and also what is happening in him/herself.  The child integrates the information coming through following external and internal senses: vision, audition, tactile, gustatory, vestibular, olfactory proprioseption and thermoreceptors.  The state of arousal and attention effects his/her alertness and thus the ability to cope with any situation that is beyond familiarity e.g. sudden noises, movements, etc.  during a swimming lesson.  During the integration process the infant makes sense of the multiple sensations, processes it and organizes it so that he/she can generalize the information in similar situations in the future e.  This integration process requires also cognitive abilities - abilities to understand why things are happening and what to do in order to cope.  Memory of past and present experiences do affect the way the child decides to react and perform - a good past experience of diving will give him joy to try again.  A bad experience of diving will remind him of a stressful situation and he/she will try another coping mechanism - he might cry in order to escape the situation or he might get tensed and have another bad diving experience.  Whatever the coping mechanism is it usually does not bring a better solution if the instructor or parents do not change their way of performing the exercise.

The level of experience in young children is always very concrete, one cannot explain to them what is coming - what to wait for.  They do not yet understand abstract meanings and thus the messages we give them are transmitted through our intimate contact.  Neither are the children able to send any other messages that what their body transmits.  Thus it is important that nothing is taken for granted - again I stress that there is nothing like an average child - but how they perform is always individual and the way to be in water should thus also be individual for each individual child.

How the infant reacts - what is the so called motor output - is never only a simple motor performance but an adaptive behavior that integrates his/her motor, sensory, emotional, cognitive, perceptional and relating capacities. The way he felt when he mastered the situation meaning not only pure motor performance but even more the psychological performance - did it feel good, how did the parents react, did it effect the way he learns in the future, will he/she adjust his behavior or change the strategy.  This the way normal, healthy children learn through trial and error - through adjusting and participating.  Performance is always a result of feedforward and feedbackward mechanisms.

Children with developmental difficulties do have a restricted adaptive and processing capacity.  Any experience that didn't feel good is an even greater stress from them as it is harder for these children to find a better coping mechanism.  Their parents may also have difficulties in accepting the fact that their child had developmental difficulties and unintentionally try to push their child to a level they think he/she should - meaning the dream he/she would be able to perform.  For the children it is important that one appreciates time - allow time for the child to get used to new situations, help the child to organize him/herself and experiment his body in a situation where he/she feels safe.  Very often mild developmental difficulties are not yet diagnosed by the health care authorities when the infants come to a swimming activity, yet they can readily be observed by an experienced instructor.  Even slight developmental difficulties affecting especially perception, proprioception and postural stability may cause evident difficulties for the child to adapt himself to the new environment and new motor activities.   The sensitivity of the instructor for these situations is of utmost importance in order to achieve a pleasant experience for the child.

Attachment behavior s are biologically pre-programmed patterns of behaviors to gain protection and comfort in situations of fear and or distress.  Secure attachment requires that the infants have experience of a contingent, sensitive caregiving and thus can safely use his full capacity for exploration.  If swimming is a stressful situation for the parents their abilities to read their infants behavior may be compromised.  By being sensitive to signs showing that the infant is stressed beyond his abilities in any developmental field the instructor can help the parents to understand the level of stimulation, timing and duration of activity their own infant is capable of coping with.  This it is important that in infant swimming the lessons are not scheduled according to strictly timed exercises.   This strict system does not give the infant nor the parents the possibility to adjust individually but may push not only the child but also the parents into a stressful situation.

 We all should be well aware of the fact that infants do need secure attachment.  It has long been suspected that many of the common psychiatric and social problems of adult life have their roots in the early relationship between the child and its parents.  Out of the infants first experiences of attachment stem expectations and assumptions which will color all the subsequent relationships - for good or ill.   The development of attachment patterns between infant and caretakers are based on infant's need expressions and three characteristics have been proposed as distinguishing attachment from other relational bonds:

1) Proximity seeking.  The child will attempt to remain within protective range of his parents.  This protective range is reduced in strange or threatening situations.  In infant swimming a typical situation where the child is pushed beyond his/her coping abilities is when the parents are trying something they think their child should be able to do as the other children of the same age are able to do without understanding or admitting that their child is not yet ready for this particular activity.

2)  Secure base of effect.  The presence of an attachment fosters security feelings in the child.   This result in inattention to attachment considerations and in confident exploration and play. Simplified this would mean that if the infant can rely on the parents he feels more comfortable in trying new,  challenging activities.   Without secure base the child is less willing to explore.   The time spend on individual timed and planned activates in the water during infancy will allow the young toddler to be fully active during swimming lessons without parents.  So there truly is no need to try to reach for the moon in infant swimming.

3) Separation protest.  Threat to continued access to attachment gives rise to protest and fear meaning that the infants should have their parents with them in the water as long as they feel there are elemen5ts of fear.  In a situation of security the parents may even be ignored but when the children are made anxious attachment feelings and behaviors are displayed.

The key concept in the original studies of Ainsworth on the development of attachment is maternal sensitivity defined a s mother's ability and willingness to perceive the infants communications as reflected in his behavior, emotional expression, and vocalizations, see and interpret them from the infant's point of view, and respond to them promptly and appropriately according to the infant's developmental and emotional needs.  This concept does, however, not declare that these abilities would be innate in all mothers or that if they are not present the infant would be deprived of secure attachment.  Though the mother's role is essential in the development of psychosocial well-being of the child all the other adults - in our case the infant swimming instructor - have their effect on the development of attachment - in good and evil.  I sincerely hope that instructors would be sensitive to this important aspect of development and learn to appreciate sensitive and individual teaching even in a group activity like infant swimming in most countries is.

Behavior and performance are determined by continuous interplay between genetic factors and the diversity of circumstances an individual may encounter.  It is important to remember that infant swimming activity should include not only elements supporting psychomotor development but even more to achieve psychosocial well-being.  For this to happen one has not only to appreciate the way each individual infant reacts and develops but also allow individual limits for intensity, duration and timing of an exercise.