Why is my child so afraid of water?

Not many people are afraid of putting their feet, hands body in water, everywhere else but the face! What is it about the face that makes it seem so vulnerable? Answer: nose, ears, and mouth! The nose is a particularly sensitive part, and sniffing water into the nostrils can be extremely unpleasant – with a stinging, burning sensation. Although it is not fatal, and despite all evidence to the contrary, many people behave as if simply submerging their face will subject its vital and sensitive orifices to intense discomfort with the unstoppable influx of water. This is aqua phobia Is there any basis for such fears? Most swimmers would readily agree that such concerns are exaggerated. Nonetheless, they need to be taught, and the fears need to be addressed. They are obstacles to appreciating how the immersion of the face is a necessary and potentially rewarding aspect to the art of swimming.

The eyes

The eyes are undoubtedly delicate and a very sensitive organ, where most of us detest the sensation of medical drops being dripped into. When a foreign body touches the cornea, our automatic reaction is to blink and flicker our eyelids, and there’s a natural tendency for it to water. These reflexes serve as a protection to the cornea from any damage. With practice we can learn to inhibit these reactions, an important ability if we wish to wear contact lenses, or to open our eyes underwater unprotected by a mask or goggles. There are, of course, realistic concerns about the effect on our eyes of possible pollutants and detergent chemicals used to disinfect pools. People who are ultra-sensitive to chlorine or have allergic reactions to certain chemicals obviously need to take special care about chemically disinfecting their pools. Fortunately, there is a growing range of alternative methods of cleaning, filtering them. Prolonged exposure of the eyes to chlorine and other chemicals can cause irritation, but in most swimming-pools the levels are carefully monitored and controlled so that the water is safe, even if swallowed by mistake.

Anxiety or pain to the eye might result from water being in contact with the cornea. With its softness and neutral pH balance, clean water is a safe medium for the eyes. However, even when they keep their eyes tightly shut underwater, some swimmers feel the need to wipe water off their eyelids before they re-open them. The habit of using the hands to sweep the water constantly away from the eyes is often observed in beginners, but should be discouraged as it impedes learning to swim at any stage. Flicking the eyelashes and blinking the eyelids are all that is required for the eye to repel excess water. Familiarity with the feeling of water stinging the cornea – whether through regular swimming or practicing in the bath helps to remove unnecessary and distracting concerns about getting water in the eyes.

The Ears

Getting water in the ears is another distraction, but one which need not present excessive concern to swimmers. Reactions range from an irrational anxiety that simply placing the ears in the water will cause them to fill up, to an exaggerated worry about water remaining trapped inside the ears. The complex series of twists and turns inside the human ear effectively prevents water penetrating beyond its outer parts, and the deeper, more delicate region towards the eardrum is virtually inaccessible. Occasionally water can be trapped by wax in the outer canals of the ear, causing some temporary discomfort. If the water is allowed to remain there for an extended period, bacterial infection can develop, but inflammation is more often the consequence of excessive efforts to clear and dry the interior channels.

The ‘fear’

In the case of both eyes and ears, it’s not just the physical contact with water that can be the cause of anxiety. Often it’s because their functions – seeing and hearing – seem to be affected or impaired. This is mainly because the aquatic environment presents different kinds of visual and aural stimuli to those we normally experience outside the water. Under the water, sounds are muffled and sights appear less distinct. Some sounds will seem magnified, for instance, one’s own breathing and heartbeat. It is important not to be put off from exhaling firmly and steadily simply because it sounds louder than expected. These sensations should not provoke alarm, and unfamiliarity alone makes them intimidating. With time and experience, we easily become accustomed to the different quality of sensations in and around the water, and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Fears of placing the nose and mouth in the water are largely related to fears about breathing. The question of how we breathe when swimming is of paramount importance to feel at home in the water. The physiological mechanism of the mouth acts as an effective barrier to prevent water from getting into our lungs. We need to familiarize ourselves in practice with the operation of this mechanism so that unnecessary fears do not overwhelm us. Additionally, there are a number of swimming accessories which can be invaluable in helping swimmers overcome their fears about putting their face in the water.

Overcome the fear, and dive in!

Once we have learned to put our face in water, we stand to derive additional benefit from the effects of another remarkable physiological mechanism, known as the dive instinct. The dive instinct was first identified in seals, as despite being mammals, they are able to swim for extended periods under water. It was found that this ability is linked to a measurable change in their metabolism, which to a greater or lesser degree affects all mammals when the face is immersed in water. This change comprises a noticeable slowdown in the activity of the respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular systems. The cumulative effect is to allow for a slower release of energy and accompanying feelings of tranquility – that is, so long as negative thoughts do not interfere and counteract these effects. There are thus positive physiological and psychological benefits to be gained from conquering the fear of putting the face in the water. Those who choose to swim with their heads held clear of the water – often, in fact, because of unacknowledged fears – are missing out on the very experience that could help to put a different perspective on their feelings.

3 replies
  1. Dr. A. Arbel
    Dr. A. Arbel says:

    Dear Author.
    More than happy to see that a method we developed for the Singapore Arty in 1967, you apply this days, to overcome the fear of water. This is the first lesson which we called “how to breath in water”. You start with exhaling slowly air through the mouth up to twenty seconds with the sound of “fu or ou”. You first practice it out side the pool. Then you may do the some practice even, in a cup or dish with water, or even use a drinking straw for it. Once mouth, nose and eyes are immersed into the water and feel comfortable with and in water, than you carry out practice in shallow water 20-40 cm. Then if they achieved a duration of 20 seconds and above in water you may turn to deep water -up to their neck. The inhalation of air is to be a bit less than normal, to prevent over ventilation.
    The next step is floating. Here is to observe that legs and hands are stretched and capt together. The hands are to be in front beside and next to the ears and while the palms are kept together with their flat part pointing to the pool floor. However’ most important is, that the body muscles are to be totally relaxed in particular arms, legs and neck, while the eyes and the forehead are pointing to the pool floor. In addition, one should be thought how the turn from horizontal to vertical/upright position. This is achieved by bending both knees to the belly.
    The final stage is motivation of body in water. which is the teaching how to move the body in water with minimal strength.
    Since Singapore is an Island surrounded with water it is imperative that the swimmers should swim on their belly with their face in water and not on their back. Since once a wave covers them from above with water, may confuse or even enter then into a state of anxiety. On the other hand, going into the wave intentionaly with the face down will prevent it.
    We got excellent results. After two hours from beginning of practice people that did not know to swim passed a test of swimming 100 meters.
    Sorry bothering you, I am glad that there is a continuation of history, in Singapore even if it may be by chance
    Dr. A Arbel

    • Weiliang
      Weiliang says:

      I feel that you have neglected the source of the anxiety when it comes to the mentality of “non-swimmers”. The reason why the term is written in inverted commas, is due to the fact most people do know how to swim, but to varying ability, even for a child as young as 8. What swimming schools should be focusing on is to teach “non-swimmers”,like myself, how to TREAD WATER. A couch potato can ‘run’ a full marathon if given enough time as he can always stop for a breather, but can he do the same for swimming if he doesn’t know how to TREAD WATER? food for thought.

  2. Neil
    Neil says:

    First of all, I must say it’s great to see a swimming school who cares about teaching nervous kids to learn to swim – as I child I was just cast aside by teachers who didn’t understand and ended up learning to swim from my parents in my early teens instead. However, I feel I must respond to this section of your article:

    “The nose is a particularly sensitive part, and sniffing water into the nostrils can be extremely unpleasant – with a stinging, burning sensation. Although it is not fatal, and despite all evidence to the contrary, many people behave as if simply submerging their face will subject its vital and sensitive orifices to intense discomfort with the unstoppable influx of water. This is aqua phobia Is there any basis for such fears? Most swimmers would readily agree that such concerns are exaggerated.”

    Whilst the causes of phobias are indeed often irrational, and as an aquaphobic myself I’m all too aware of this, you’ve touched on an area here where aquaphobia can and often does have a rational basis. Some people do indeed choke quite badly if they submerge their noses in water. I, for example, learnt to swim as a child but only with my head above the water because of this problem. I later learnt to snorkel and scuba dive, but again, only with a mask on to prevent choking. I also learnt to swim the front crawl, but only with a nose clip on. I got to the point with all three activities where I was comfortable under the water, but if I held my breath and removed the mask or nose clip, even slowly, I would start to inhale water involuntarily and have a pretty horrible 20-30 seconds where I felt like I was winded, unable to breath in or out, followed by coughing and sometimes vomiting. Eventually, aged 32, I took private swimming lessons from a highly respected (and quite expensive!) coach who promised to remove this problem, and over the course of about 3 or 4 months I got to the stage where I could hold my breath underwater without choking. The coach did this by first getting me to breath out underwater, and very gradually we reduced the breathing out to the point where I could hold my breath. I practised this every day in a bowl of water and it was by no means an overnight cure. I assume that I had a natural instinct to breath in slightly through my nose when holding my breath, but even though in the past I obviously realised this was a possibility, just trying straight away to not breath in, or even breathing out, did not work. Clearly here a very rational basis for a fear remained and whilst I was happy swimming in and under the water, I still had a very real fear of being near or on water, presumably because I’d spent the majority of my life nearly drowning every time I was submerged in water! I continue to swim and scuba dive in water, but sadly still have a very bad fear of being near or above water, such that I avoid boats wherever possible and even don’t like walking alongside a river or canal. I just thought you should realise that some kids will naturally be able to submerge their heads in water without choking, whilst others will choke and this leads to a fear with a very rational basis.


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