There are a lot of things I have missed ever since the world slowed down and we started staying home, but these days one of the things I miss more than anything are Dessa’s self-rescue swim lessons through ISR (Infant Swimming Resource). We’ve made a few trips this year to Rob’s parents’ house and each time we go near the pool I’m hyper-aware of where my children are at all times. I love watching them play and splash in the water, but we have lots of firm rules for how to play safely in and around the water – especially for Dessa. Water safety is particularly concerning to me because drowning is the #1 cause of death in infants and young children and it is preventable. I have always watched Dessa diligently when we are near the water, but terrible accidents happen in the water every day and I wanted to add an extra layer of protection for my little girl. So I enrolled Dessa in self-rescue ISR lessons last fall. I shared a little bit about our experience on Facebook and Instagram during Dessa’s ISR swim lessons and found myself answering a lot of questions from followers curious about the lessons and how it all worked.
Dessa was scheduled to have a refresher course of ISR earlier this spring, which was canceled when everything started shutting down. Swim lessons in our area haven’t resumed (and honestly I’m not sure when I will be ready for her to have that kind of close contact with someone outside of our bubble), but I know that her confidence and skills in the water are not as strong as they were this past winter and I am eagerly awaiting the day when swim lessons feel safe again.
If you’ve ever heard about ISR lessons and wanted to learn more, this post is for you. It’s an in-depth account of our family’s first experience with self-rescue swim lessons. Here you’ll find my thoughts and reservations as we prepared for the program, as well as the behaviors and reactions I observed from Dessa in and out of the pool for the duration of her lessons and beyond. Now may not be a good time to start ISR swim lessons due to health concerns from the pandemic, but summer is a great time to think proactively about your child’s safety in the water and do a little research. If self-rescue swim lessons will give you the same peace of mind that they brought to our family, you can go to infantswim.com, find a local instructor and put yourself on the waitlist. While you wait for lessons to open up, you can follow ISR recommendations for how to safely have fun in the water with your children.
This post is not sponsored by Infant Swimming Resource in any way and we paid full price for all of Dessa’s swim lessons. Water safety is something we firmly believe in and wanted to help spread the message of self-rescue swim in the hope that it will help to keep more children safe from accidental drownings, as well as offer reassurance that self-rescue swim lessons offered a very positive experience for our family.
After seeing one too many heartbreakingly preventable stories of children drowning on Facebook, I decided it was time to do something to keep Dessa safe in the water. I had heard about ISR lessons before (mostly on Facebook) and another blogging friend of mine is passionately outspoken about drowning prevention. She often posted photos and videos of her own very young children learning life-saving skills in the pool and I became even more convinced that this was something I had to do to help keep Dessa safe. I discovered Anna Anderson, an ISR instructor based out of Metro Detroit through the ISR website and signed Dessa up on her waitlist. Anna’s schedule was completely booked for several months in advance and I was surprised (and elated) when I received an email about an opening in her schedule that was first-come, first-serve. I immediately jumped at the opportunity and signed Dessa up. The lessons fell during the final 5 weeks of my pregnancy and extended a week past my due date, but I didn’t care. The opportunity was too important to pass up.
Registering for ISR Swim Lessons
I quickly completed all the necessary steps online, but Anna wanted to speak with me on the phone to make sure I fully understood how ISR lessons were structured and what was expected of me and Dessa. At that point, I had done a lot of research, so none of what she said was a surprise to me. We spoke after a particularly exhausting night with Dessa while Rob was out of town. I had only gotten a few hours of sleep and my blood was charging with pregnancy hormones. I nodded my head and agreed with everything that Anna explained since none of what she outlined was news to me.
But then Anna opened up and told me she takes these lessons very seriously because her own son had drowned and nearly died in a pool when he was four years old. I was already fighting tears as I nodded along in agreement to the importance of ISR swim lessons and the horrific water accidents that happen every day with young children, but I was not prepared at all for such a revelation. Poor Anna must have thought I hung up on her. Tears were suddenly streaming down my face so quickly, I just sat and quietly cried for a few seconds before I could respond. I knew that ISR lessons would be difficult for Dessa and myself, but I also knew it was too important to avoid just because they wouldn’t be pleasant. Hearing Anna’s testimony strengthened my resolve and I wholeheartedly agreed to place Dessa in swim even though it wouldn’t be easy for either of us.
Rules and Expectations of ISR
I had done extensive research before I signed Dessa up for her first round of ISR lessons and I knew exactly what to expect of her time in the pool. I was mentally prepared for the time commitment of showing up at the pool five days a week for six weeks and the emotional toll that ISR would likely take on myself and Dessa. Despite all of my preparations, there were several rules and guidelines (particularly dietary restrictions) that caught me by surprise and it was a little overwhelming to read through everything. The rules exist for the general health and well-being of your child and all other people who will be in the pool. If you are considering ISR lessons for your child, I don’t think you should let any of the guidelines stand in your way, but I do think it’s best if you are fully prepared for what is coming your way.
I’ll get into it all in a minute, but basically you need to prepare yourself for a LOT of laundry and be very mindful of the foods your child eats for six weeks.
Diapers – This was a detail I hadn’t given much thought, but makes total sense. All children and babies who are not yet potty-trained need to wear two layers of protection against diaper leaks. Disposable swim diapers aren’t permitted, so you will need to invest in special reusable cloth swim diapers. Children need to wear 2 of these diapers (one layered on top of each other) every time they swim, so order several. We bought four and it worked perfectly. (I can’t tell you how many times Dessa soiled her first set of swim diapers right after I got her changed and ready for the pool. Having a second set of clean diapers was key for us.)
Towels – You will need to bring three towels to each ISR swim lesson. One towel will be laid next to the pool and acts as a germ barrier. The second towel goes on top of it for your child to lay on after the swim lesson and the third towel gets used as a covering like a blanket for you to comfort and dry your child with while they lay down.
Diet – The diet restrictions were by far the most unexpected set of rules for swim lessons. It’s pretty common for young children to swallow a fair bit of pool water during ISR lessons and most of the food guidelines have the sole purpose of preventing vomit in the pool. Here’s a quick breakdown of the limitations:
- no medications or vitamins given two hours prior to swim – plan to inform the ISR instructor of all medications and vitamin your child is taking
- no food or water for at least two hours prior before swim – especially not dairy or milk products
- no apples, pineapple, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, spinach, honey or celery AT ALL during the six weeks that your child is involved in swim (Carefully read the ingredients in your child’s food pouches and juice boxes because most of them have at least one of those ingredients).
Water experiences outside of ISR – ISR strongly encourages parents to refrain from any recreational water activities with their children during the course of their time in ISR. If you enroll your child in ISR, you will receive a digital resource on why this is so important, but basically the purpose is to avoid any water experiences that contradict and interfere with the skills taught during ISR lessons.
Photos and Videos – Friday is the designated day for recording photos and videos of your child’s ISR lessons. Cameras are not permitted on any other day of the week. While this rule is very firm, Dessa’s instructor was very accommodating when I asked permission to record ahead of time for a good reason. I had photos taken when I was in the pool with Dessa and during two of her “silly swims” when Dessa swam in the pool fully clothed near the end of her course with ISR. None of those events happened on a Friday and I really wanted to capture the memory. If you sign your child up for ISR lessons, be prepared for the Friday-only camera rule. You can always ask for an exception if you have a good reason to record on a different day, but make sure you are respectful of the instructor’s decision even if it doesn’t go your way.
I know there are a lot of guidelines, and it can be very overwhelming at first, but ISR lessons are an investment with the potential to save your child’s life. Every rule exists for a reason and are enforced with the very best intentions for the safety of all children enrolled in ISR. Ultimately, you just have to trust that there is a very good reason for every single regulation and do your part to help the process along. You do not want to be the parent of the kid who pukes in the pool because you broke the rule about not eating two hours before swimming or fed your child some apples for a snack because you didn’t believe that it was a big deal.
Preparing Dessa for Survival Swim Lessons
In the days leading up to swim, I knew that I had prepared Dessa well for what was to come. She was excited about swim and told anyone who would listen all about her upcoming lessons. She explained that her teacher would be Miss Anna, that she would float on her back and get her face wet, that she would hold onto the wall, and lay on a towel when it was all done.
Once I knew I had done everything in my power to prepare Dessa for her upcoming ISR lessons and create an experience for her that would be as positive as possible, it was time to turn some attention to my own preparations for her lessons.
Preparing Myself for ISR Lessons
As the day approached for Dessa’s first experience in the pool with ISR, I grew increasingly nervous. Dessa had a positive outlook for her upcoming lessons, but I knew it would be hard and she was likely to cry. More than anything, I was scared that I would cry during the lesson as well when I saw her struggle. It would be hard to watch with dry eyes on a regular day, but with the pregnancy, it seemed extra eminent that I would bawl my way through her sessions in the pool. During our phone conversation, Anna had explained the importance of Dessa seeing me with a smile on my face during her lessons and that Dessa would take her emotional cues from me while she was in the pool. If I was nervous, crying or seemed on edge; Dessa would mimic all of those emotions and behaviors. Everything Anna said made sense to me as an early childhood educator, and I resolved to try to keep a brave face through the process.
Leading up to Dessa’s first day in the pool, I was also very nervous about timing and punctuality. Dessa only had a 10-minute time slot in the pool and I’m not exactly known for showing up right on time. Anna had great communication with all of her swim families in the days and weeks leading up to that first lesson, which always came with a reminder that parents should have children properly dressed and by the pool 7-10 minutes before their time slot. I took that information to heart and built a lot of extra time into my daily schedule to ensure that we were on time and ready to go.
A Breakdown of Our First Experience with ISR
I took a lot of detailed notes about our experience during the first days and weeks of ISR, which I am happy to share with you. It certainly was a challenging program for Dessa and she spent a fair bit of time crying and whining while in the water. Despite the difficulties, it astounded me that Dessa’s enthusiasm for swim never wavered when she was out of the water. Dessa may have cried in the pool, but she always left the water with a smile and spoke with pride and excitement about all that she was learning during her lessons. It didn’t take long for Dessa to begin reenacting her ISR lessons at home with her baby.
We encountered our very first day of ISR swim lessons with a kind of nervous enthusiasm that filled the air. I continued to be super-nervous about two things: arriving on time and trying to keep myself composed if Dessa struggled through her lesson. Miraculously, we left the house, found the pool, changed, and were poolside with 10 minutes to spare. Things were running a bit behind schedule when we arrived by the pool, but Dessa was super patient and we watched a few other children swim before it was her turn. The first child we watched was a baby who was a trooper. She just had to lay on her back and learn to float and even when her face went under, she took it like a champ and somehow didn’t cry. Next up was a 2-year-old boy, followed by a 1-year-old boy. Both boys completely hated their time in the water. Throughout the whole thing, I narrated what we saw for Dessa and was careful to put a positive spin on all of it:
How Miss Anna was holding on to those children to keep them safe.
How brave the baby was for getting his face wet and not crying.
How the 2-year-old boy was holding the wall just like Dessa would do.
I explained that he was sad, but that he was doing such a great job and making his mommy so proud because he was being brave.
I knew I couldn’t take any pictures of Dessa in the water on the first day, but I wanted to remember this day, so I snapped a few photos of Dessa while we waited our turn, then the two of us took a quick selfie to lighten the moment with a little bit of silliness before she got in the pool.
Eventually, it was Dessa’s turn. When we met Anna by the pool, I answered a series of questions about her diet, sleep, bowel movements, any fevers, rashes etc. (I have since learned that these questions are standard and are asked by the instructor every single day before my child can enter the pool.)
I was prepared to discuss Dessa but was caught off guard when Anna asked how I was feeling. It was a quick question, with an equal quick reply of “pregnant, but good” but it was very sweet of Anna to be concerned about my well-being on a very big day for Dessa. Anna smiled understandingly at my response and turned toward Dessa because it was time to swim. I picked up my nervous two-year-old and carefully handed her to Anna who was waiting in the pool. Dessa has always been unsure of new people, so I wasn’t surprised to see that she immediately clammed up in Anna’s arms. Dessa didn’t cry (yet) but was very reserved. Anna asked if Dessa is shy around new people and I said, “Yes, always.” I could tell that this wasn’t anything new for Anna and she casually handled the situation by moving a few feet away from the edge of the pool and just spoke quietly to Dessa for a minute to give my reluctant toddler a chance to adjust to being in the water with a new person.
A few seconds later, it was time to hold the wall. Anna brought Dessa back near the edge of the pool where I was watching, held Dessa, and encouraged her to reach out to the wall – an easy, simple way to begin.
I watched as Anna removed one of Dessa’s hands that was firmly grabbing the wall. Dessa immediately reached back to clutch the edge of the pool with both her hands, and Anna proceeded to remove the grasp on her other hand. She repeated this sequence for a minute or so, then moved a bit away from the wall while holding Dessa. This time, Dessa had to reach and lunge for the wall and things became a little more difficult. Dessa had more than one face full of water, and she even went underwater for a moment as she was reaching for the wall. It didn’t take long before Dessa started screaming “Go see Momma!” as she clutched the wall and tried to climb out of the water because swim wasn’t as fun as she was expecting. I’m not going to lie – it was very difficult to see my child struggling in the pool and screaming my name for help while I watched and did nothing. My eyes briefly welled up, but I choked back the tears, faked a smile and kept cheering for my little girl as she worked to grab and hold the wall.
This wasn’t Anna’s first time with an upset student or a struggling mother, and she offered reassurance that made total sense while Dessa took a break and held the wall. Anna explained that Dessa needed a reason to hold onto the wall. A key principle of ISR is developing survival instincts in the pool. Dessa didn’t like going under the water, so she had just found her reason to get to the wall and hold tightly onto it. The desire to reach the comfort and safety of holding the wall of the pool was a critical first step in Dessa’s ISR training.
After a few minutes of swimming to the wall, Anna was ready to begin developing a new skill and took Dessa out a few feet away and had her practice floating on her back. I could tell that Anna was offering some support under Dessa’s head and shoulders to help her stay afloat while still allowing Dessa to struggle and learn to float on her own. It was Dessa’s job to keep her legs and back afloat. This was Dessa’s first time EVER floating in a pool and it wasn’t easy or instinctual for her. Her face dipped under a few times and it broke my heart to see her struggling, but I knew it was far better to get a little water on her face while she had the support to learn a life-saving skill than to find herself in a life or death water situation and have no idea how to help herself.
After a few more rounds of holding the wall then floating on her back, my sad little girl was finally lifted out of the water and given a chance to rest on the towels. I knew that the expectation was for Dessa to lay on her left side and rest for a minute before getting up and I was pretty sure that there was no way Dessa would calmly lay down after a difficult experience in the pool. I fully expected Dessa to reach for me and insist on crawling into my lap after a difficult swim lesson. I was wrong. To my surprise, Dessa found comfort in laying on the towel as I covered her up with a fresh dry towel and we counted to 10 to help her relax.
After a brief rest, I helped Dessa stand up, gave her a big hug and told her how proud I was. Dessa politely said goodbye to Miss Anna and gave her a high five. By the time we walked away from the pool, Dessa had completely calmed down and was asking to play on the toddler slide we saw when we first arrived at the community center. I was shocked by how quickly she bounced back to her usual, silly self after working so hard and being so sad during her ISR swim lesson.
What surprised me further was how happily Dessa spoke about swim after we left. Later that night, she told Rob that she held the wall and laid on her back and that Miss Anna held her. Dessa spoke extensively about laying on the towel when she was finished. I think that laying down was such a relief to be safe and comfortable that she just loved that feeling. She also mentioned that she cried in the pool, but she didn’t get upset when she spoke of it. Instead, Dessa just stated that she cried like it was a fact. It was just another detail about what happened in the pool and not anything that she felt emotional about once she was out of the water.
As we prepared for the second day of ISR lessons, I spoke frequently about it our return the pool because I didn’t want Dessa to be caught off-guard when we showed up for another difficult lesson. To my surprise, she was fine with it every time I mentioned where we were going. She told me all about Miss Anna (I always emphasized that Miss Anna would hold Dessa and keep her safe) and that she was going to float and hold the wall and lay on the towel (yup, Dessa was still very excited about that towel at the end).
I made a point of speaking excitedly about everything that would happen in the pool and reassured Dessa that I would be right next to her when she laid down and would tell her how proud I was of her time in swim. My little girl continued to surprise me by singing a song and doing a dance about swimming in the pool as we were heading out the door, then excitedly pointed to the building when we arrived. Dessa eagerly rushed through the community center hallways to get ready and didn’t fuss for a minute while we changed and headed toward the pool.
I wasn’t entirely surprised when things started to change a little as we sat by the pool and waited for Dessa’s turn to swim. The other children before Dessa were having a hard time and crying through their time in the water. Dessa watched while I narrated once again about Miss Anna holding those children and keeping them safe while they bravely tried new things. We took another selfie by the pool while we waited for Dessa’s turn to swim, but she was too busy focusing on the pool to be silly with me.
Then it was our turn. Dessa reluctantly followed me to the see Miss Anna who was waiting in the pool. All of her previous enthusiasm was gone. She cried and whined when I handed her over to Anna and my heart sank because I feared it would be a particularly difficult swim lesson. Anna explained that she was going to take Dessa to the other end of the pool so I would be out of her line of sight. That was when I noticed all the toys lined up at the far end of the pool. I knew it was for Dessa’s good and wondered if perhaps all of my clapping and cheering the day before was a bit too enthusiastic. But then I realized she didn’t move those toys over right before Dessa’s lesson – this was the format Anna had deliberately set up for her lessons that day.
It felt strange and took all of my self-control NOT to videotape or snap a quick photo to send to Rob (again, photos are only permitted on Friday lessons). I needed to stay busy somehow while I waited for the minutes to tick by, so I turned on my phone’s timer and alternated between texted Rob updates and watching Dessa swim from across the pool – all the while checking to see how much time remained in Dessa’s swim lesson.
In all honestly, it was a relief for Dessa to swim at the other end of the pool. The pool deck was very loud so I couldn’t hear her cry or scream – I just saw the work that she did. Most of Dessa’s lesson for the day was spent holding the wall of the pool, so her back was to me. Anna also spent some time helping Dessa transition from back to front so she could reach for the wall at the end of a floating cycle.
On that day, Dessa was only in the water for 7 minutes and I was very thankful when she was on her way back to me and the comfort of the towel. I asked if she screamed the whole time and Anna said it was more of a whine and characterized it as mild – which I was also thankful for.
Just like the day before, as soon as Dessa was done laying down and semi-dry, she requested to go down the slide. She still had a few lingering sad moments as we changed out of her suit and into dry clothes, but Dessa’s good-natured demeanor blew me away once again.
Our third day of swim got off to a very similar start as the previous two swim experiences. That morning, Dessa happily spoke about her upcoming lesson and cheerfully recited all the things that would happen. She was in good spirits and excited when we pulled in to the community center parking lot. The enthusiasm lingered as we traveled to the locker room and Dessa put on her swimsuit. My little girl was extra excited when she saw that Rob joined us at the pool as a surprise so he could watch her swim that day too.
But then it was Dessa’s turn to go in the pool and her demeanor quickly changed. The day before, Dessa had softly cried and whined when it was time to enter the pool, but on her third day of swim Dessa put up a fight. She grabbed two fistfuls of my hair and cried as I lowered her into Anna’s arms. Dessa had a very tight grip on my hair, and it took a while before I could free myself from her grasp. When I was finally free, Anna didn’t miss a beat. She gave Dessa a reassuring hug as she carried her toward the center of the pool. Dessa whimpered as she swam for the rest of the lesson, but she cooperated with Anna and learned to kick in the pool that day while Rob and I both cheered from the side of the pool.
In addition to the usual swim reenactment that night, Dessa was especially excited about Rob’s appearance at her lesson and told us over and over again that Daddy came to watch her swim and clap for her. It was as if her stubborn, fearful hair grab by the pool had never occurred.
Our fourth day of ISR lessons was a Friday and I was excited to finally record Dessa working hard to float and swim in the water. I spent all morning talking about how special the day was because I could finally take pictures of Dessa in the pool and I truly was excited. I snapped our usual poolside selfie before it was Dessa’s turn to swim with Miss Anna.
To my great relief, Dessa walked willingly all by herself into Miss Anna’s arms when it was time to swim. My little girl’s time in the pool was challenging, and she whimpered through the lesson, but I was overjoyed and so incredibly proud to capture her hard work on camera.
Once Dessa was out of the water, Anna suggested that we show Dessa the videos of her swimming that I had recorded of her swimming with the volume turned off over the weekend. The video proved to be a great learning tool for Dessa and increased her enthusiasm for swim lessons. Dessa loved watching videos of herself swimming while we pointed out all the big, brave things she did in the pool like floating, reaching for the wall, and getting her face wet. Dessa never even noticed that she was crying throughout most of the photos and videos.
With a week of ISR swim lessons behind her, Dessa’s second week in the pool was notably calmer than the first. She was nervous to get in the pool, but there was hardly any whining while she was in the water and Dessa was calm enough to answer questions for Miss Anna during her lesson. My little girl continued to learn new skills and spent more time underwater and holding her breath. She even began to open her eyes while her face was in the water. Dessa just about blew me away one moment when she looked at me in the midst of one of her ISR lessons while I clapped. To my great surprise, Dessa actually smiled and began to clap for herself. There wasn’t any doubt that the first week was a challenge for both of us, and it was such a relief to see Dessa beginning to smile and take pride in the hard work she was accomplishing in the pool with Miss Anna.
Her Friday lesson was canceled that week, so I didn’t have an opportunity to take photos or videos of Dessa in the pool, but I was able to get a quick poolside selfie before one of her lessons.
Any time a child learns a new skill, they rarely make progress in a linear fashion. There are steps forward and back along the way and Dessa’s swim experiences with ISR were no exception. Anna had been working for several days in a row to help Dessa learn to kick while swimming, and it just wasn’t going well. We talked about kicking in the pool at home and “practiced” kicking at night while Dessa pretended to swim on the rug in our living room. Sometime during the third week, things began to click and Dessa finally started to kick while she swam! While that was a huge sign of progression, I noticed that Dessa had fewer smiles and more tears in the pool because things were getting more difficult.
You would think that extra tears in the pool would cause Dessa to wane in her overall enthusiasm about swim and begin to resist the pool, but that was not the case at all. Dessa still spoke excitedly about her ISR swim lessons every single day and would beg for a chance to stay and watch other children have a turn in the pool after her. Anna often brought a little treat as a reward for her students on Fridays and the reward on this particular Friday was a sucker. After Dessa was dressed, she sat outside the pool area and watched several children swim through the window before watching Miss Anna pack up all of her belongings at the end of the afternoon. Dessa may have struggled in the pool, but she savored every lick of that sucker and there wasn’t any doubt that my little girl was proud of herself and so in love with her instructor.
Our fourth week of self-rescue swim lessons was met with significantly more tears during the lesson. When things got hard for Dessa in the pool, she just wanted to get hugs from Miss Anna and would try her hardest to wrap her arms around Anna’s neck and snuggle; but when asked, she would continue to push herself and cooperate with Anna’s request to keep swimming.
It was around this time that Dessa started to plateau with her lessons. She cooperated with Anna as best she could, but her progress in the pool slowed down significantly. It’s typical for parents to be invited to join their child in the pool for a lesson at some point during ISR so that we can learn how to communicate and reinforce the skills taught in ISR through meaningful water experiences once the lesson sequence is complete. Even though we were only four weeks into Dessa’s swim lessons, Anna invited me to join Dessa in the pool for one of her lessons that week. I think Anna hoped that my presence in the water would help Dessa relax a bit so she could resume making progress during her time in the pool. Whatever the reason, I was happy to have some interaction in the pool with Dessa – even if it meant donning a swimsuit when I was 38 weeks pregnant.
Dessa was super excited to know that I would join her during swim that day, but quickly started to cry once I entered the water. She was no longer interested in swimming and just wanted me to hold her. Anna gently nudged Dessa to keep swimming just like any other day in the pool and Dessa reluctantly cooperated by swimming back and forth between Anna and myself. Midway through the lesson, Anna stopped to explain a few things to me about how I could continue to help and support Dessa when we were on our own in the water. I held Dessa while we were chatting and she enjoyed every second of those extra snuggles in the pool during our conversation. Once we finished talking, Dessa calmed down and was more willing to cooperate during the few remaining minutes of our time in the pool together. My own time in the water and conversation with Anna provided an incredibly helpful experience so I could learn a few things about how the instructor interacts with Dessa and why she moved in certain ways so I could carry those lessons into our family water experiences.
Dessa’s emotions in the pool were certainly heightened while I was in the pool, but she was more willing to cooperate and do the work with Miss Anna the next day when we returned to her usual swim lesson routine. She was still upset about some of the skills that Anna wanted Dessa to work on, but she tried her best, was willing to listen, and didn’t try to hug her way through the time in the pool.
Dessa’s fifth week of ISR swim lessons was an eventful one because our second child, Harvey, was born. I had a scheduled induction for health reasons, and I was determined to get Dessa to her lessons in the pool as often as possible during an especially crazy week for our family. Dessa arrived for her lessons as usual on Monday and Tuesday, then got a break from swim while she stayed with my parents on Wednesday and Thursday for Harvey’s birth. By Friday, our newly-formed family of four packed into the van so Harvey could watch his big sister swim. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to bring my two-day-old son to the public pool, but I had been with Dessa every step of the way for her swim lessons leading up to Harvey’s birth and I knew my little creature of habit needed me at the pool during so much change.
Becoming a big sister is a huge adjustment all on its own and my little girl needed the reassurance of knowing I was sitting, watching, and cheering her on from the edge of the pool just as much as before. Even though it had been a big week that completely threw off our little routine, Dessa was a champ in the pool and was very cooperative of everything Anna asked.
After five weeks of carting my toddler to the pool every single weekday for ISR lessons, we had finally arrived at the final week of swim. Dessa’s last week of swim came with an opportunity for Dessa to practice her water skills while fully clothed in the pool. Anna called these days “silly swim” days and emphasized that they were an experience. The whole purpose of ISR is to teach young children self-rescue skills in the water, but swimming in a pool while wearing a bathing suit under the gentle care of an instructor is very different from a life-or-death situation in which a child suddenly finds herself alone in the water. No child or adult can ever fully prepare for those unexpected moments, but ISR seeks to give children a little nudge toward preparedness with a fully-clothed swim experience. Anyone who has ever spontaneously jumped into a pool or lake while wearing jeans or long sleeves knows how different those clothes feel than swimwear. Regular clothes are heavy when they get wet and they cling to the body in a way that really slows you down.
The silly swim days were not something that Dessa would be evaluated on, nor did her completion of the activity allow Dessa to “pass” or “graduate” from ISR. Rather, her experience in the water was simply an experience. Since Dessa can be fairly timid when trying something new, I spent a lot of time preparing her for what was going to happen in the pool. Using a positive voice and upbeat language, I explained every step of silly swim trip to the pool: that we would arrive to swim like we always do, that we would still go in the locker room to change, but that this time Dessa would put on regular clothes instead of a bathing suit and that she was going to swim in the pool wearing regular clothes – even her diaper and sandals! The prospect of wearing sandals in the pool was especially comical to Dessa and the silliness of the story drew her right in. Coincidentally, we happened to have a copy of the book Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton in our house. It’s a silly little story about a turkey that always puts his clothes on the wrong way. The funny twist at the end of the book is that once the turkey is finally wearing all of his clothes the correct way, he jumps into a pool wearing his regular clothes instead of a bathing suit. The book was not written for ISR and has absolutely nothing to do with swim lessons, but it was perfect for helping Dessa to connect with her upcoming silly swim in a positive way.
I’m not sure how other ISR instructors handle the “silly swim” experience, but Miss Anna scheduled two back-to-back days for this activity. On the first day, Dessa dressed in lightweight summer clothes (tank top, shorts, sandals and a regular diaper). The lesson wasn’t easy (especially since Anna lowered Dessa upside down into the water so she could practice orienting herself) but Dessa was a trooper. She whined a few times but performed all the skills to the best of her ability and was instantly ready for our next activity as soon as the lesson was complete.
Our first silly swim was a success and Dessa handled the experience well, so Anna decided to go forward with a more challenging swim session the next day. This time, Dessa would have the challenge of swimming in heavier clothes. I’ve heard that some children swim fully dressed in winter gear (including a winter coat and snow boots) but Anna advised me to dress Dessa in the type of clothes she would wear to a campfire in the fall.
The next day, Dessa arrived at her ISR lesson ready for her second silly swim. My strong little two-year-old used all of her skills in the pool while wearing a long sleeve shirt with a hoodie on top, denim leggings, tennis shoes, socks, and a very heavy diaper full of pool water. It wasn’t easy, but Dessa’s capabilities amazed me once again.
Six weeks after beginning ISR, I brought Dessa for her last self-rescue lesson with Miss Anna. After two big days of swimming fully dressed, I’m pretty sure Dessa enjoyed the return to her regular lesson with a bathing suit and swim diaper. She came out of the water with a proud little smile on her face.
Dessa emerged from her six-week course in ISR with a healthy respect for the water and instinct to seek the safety of the wall while she was in the pool. She learned to float in the water and began to develop critical skills to help her swim to safety and rely on her floating skills when she needed a break. My daughter grew and developed significantly in six weeks’ time, but she wasn’t drown-proof. No child ever is 100% drown-proof, but with Dessa it was especially apparent. Her floating and swimming skills still had a long way to go, and that was ok. All children develop at their own pace and my timid little girl who knew nothing about water safety made great progress during her time in the water and I knew we would be seeing Miss Anna for additional lessons down the road.
Maintenance and Refresher Lessons
Children don’t “graduate” from ISR lessons. Children also don’t advance to the next level of ISR like they do with typical once-a-week group swim lessons. ISR provides rigorous training in the water to equip children with critical self-rescue skills in case they are ever submerged in water without supervision. ISR instructors and the children they train work very hard for six weeks, but there isn’t a specific end-goal and the work of ISR is never fully complete.
A key component of successful water self-rescue training for infants and children in ISR is the importance of follow-up lessons after the initial six-week lesson sequence. Swim skills are just like any other skills – children require frequent opportunities to practice and refine their abilities in the water. The interesting thing is that follow-up lessons are highly suggested by ISR for another significant reason: as children grow and develop, their bodies and buoyancy in the water also changes and shifts. Follow up lessons are highly recommended to help young children maintain proficient awareness of how to keep their bodies afloat through all their growth and changes.
There are two types of ISR follow-up lessons after the initial 6-weeks of instructions: maintenance lessons and refresher lessons. Refresher lessons are sort of a mini-ISR course. They follow the same basic format of 5-day-a-week 10-minute lessons in the pool, but typically last for a fraction of the time (often somewhere between 1-3 weeks.) Maintenance lessons are much less of a commitment and are intended for children who are still very proficient at their ISR training and just need a little time in the pool to stay on-course or perhaps quickly correct a poor habit that the child is forming in the water. It’s not uncommon for children to have 1 or 2 maintenance lessons and be back on track.
Dessa’s ISR Refresher Lessons
At Anna’s recommendation, we signed Dessa up for three weeks of ISR refresher lessons (5 days a week) this past February (approximately 4 three after Dessa’s initial course of ISR.) Our family hadn’t done any swimming or provided Dessa with opportunities to practice her water skills after she finished ISR last fall and I knew there was a very high likelihood that her skills significantly relapsed.
Unfortunately, Dessa’s skills weren’t the only thing that had relapsed. Her time in the pool was more emotional than the first round of ISR and her progress was slow. She was great about putting her face in the water and holding her breath, but Dessa really struggled with the whole idea of floating this time around. Anna spent much of the three-week period trying to help Dessa remember how to relax and float in the water.
It was incredibly frustrating to sit back and watch because I knew we only had a few weeks to improve Dessa’s skills and it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere. Thankfully, the pieces finally started to click during Dessa’s last few refresher lessons and I was so relieved to see my happy little swimmer (and floater) again.
Dessa’s Attitude Toward Her Swim Lessons
ISR lessons are a challenge for children, but the thing that surprised me the most about Dessa’s time in the pool was how much she loved talking about swim when she was out of the water. Yes, her daily lessons were difficult and tears were not uncommon. But even on the most difficult days, I was amazed at how quickly she cheered up and bounced back once she was out of the water. Dessa absolutely loves Miss Anna and spoke about swim with joy, pride and enthusiasm every single day that she was enrolled in swim lessons.
Dessa treated us to daily reenactments of her swim lessons. She would often pretend to swim or float on our living room rug and then scoot over to hold onto the edge of the coffee table, telling us that she was grabbing the wall. We would hear detailed, enthusiastic narratives of the skills all day long as she practiced in the imaginary water. Sometimes Dessa changed roles and pretended to be Miss Anna while she threw her dolls on the floor and excitedly taught them how to swim. It always touched my heart to hear Dessa provide encouragement to her dolls, telling them “You are strong and brave and smart,” just like Anna told her every day in the pool.
You can see Dessa reenact her swim lessons in the ISR Swim section of our Instagram Stories. Check them out on the @crazytogetherblog Instagram page.
Waiting Till It’s Safe to Swim Again
So here we are in the midst of a pandemic and we are really missing Dessa’s ISR lessons. She was signed up for another round of refresher lessons at the end of April, which were canceled during Michigan’s Stay at Home order. It has been over three months since the pandemic struck and most of the order has been lifted, but our family still lives in a little bubble with very limited contact with other people. ISR lessons with Miss Anna haven’t resumed, and honestly, I’m not sure when I will be ready for Dessa to have close contact with someone outside of our bubble. But I know that I am looking forward to the day when swim lessons feel safe again.
We have taken Dessa to swim at a family member’s pool and it breaks my heart to see that her confidence in the water has decreased substantially since her last round of ISR lessons. We follow the advice of Infant Swim Resource and never use puddle jumpers or other flotation devices in the water with Dessa. Rather, Dessa either sits on the steps or spends her pool time playing in the safety of our arms. We have been working on a few of the skills that Miss Anna taught Dessa, but it is a struggle and I can’t get Dessa to trust her ability to float in the water. Once all of this is behind us, we plan to sign Dessa up for another round of ISR and get Harvey started with self-rescue swim lessons too, which are offered to babies as young as 6 months of age.
If you want to learn more about self-rescue swim lessons, you can check out the ISR website for more information and search for instructors in your area. If you’re local to Metro Detroit, I highly recommend Anna Anderson. Visit Anna’s ISR page for more information and to sign up for lessons when they become available.