One of the biggest misconceptions when teaching swimming involves blowing bubbles (exhaling) when the face or mouth is underwater. People often ask the simplified question “Should a child blow bubbles when learning to swim?” The reason for so much confusion is because the answer depends on what stage or skill level the swimmer is at.
As a manager and eventual CEO of Aquatic Achievers Swim Schools, we built a reputation of transforming nervous and anxious children and building their confidence. While there were many factors that made us successful at teaching beginners,the most important was also the simplest – we placed a huge emphasis on Breath Control. From our experience children (including babies) should not be taught or encouraged to blow bubbles (exhale) when their face is in or near the water when they are first learning to swim as it hinders learning Breath Control. Swimmers should start to exhale underwater with cyclical breathing (blow bubbles) only once they are learning Freestyle Side-Breathing at a later stage of their swimming journey. The important part however is WHY.
When children are first learning to swim our goal is to teach them the fundamentals so they are relaxed and can move around in the water from A to B. It’s important that as teachers we prepare children to swim to safety (or roll onto their back) if they are ever isolated or accidently fall into a pool. If a child’s automatic or conditioned response is to exhale air, they will be less buoyant, and will have less oxygen and time to swim to safety.
Although carbon dioxide does increase within the lungs while the breath is held, the biggest risk to a struggling child is inhaling water as they begin to panic, which is far more likely if the lungs are empty – increasing the speed of drowning. I was once asked by a parent about this and we got some older swimmers to try holding their breath for 20 seconds – first group with full lungs, second group with empty lungs. It was very clear that those who had empty lungs began to become uncomfortable much quicker when underwater than those with full lungs (try for yourself).
It is common for beginner swimmers to resist putting their face in the water. Even children who once enjoyed having their face in the water can all of sudden refuse to put their eyes back down. The major reason this occurs is because the swimmer ingested (breathed in) water on a previous attempt (usually without the teacher or parent knowing). The feeling is awful and something they don’t want to experience again, so they resist. Quite often children are anxious when trying new things like swimming so they are also unable to articulate or understand why they don’t want to do something – they simply have a normal human reaction of avoiding what causes discomfort previously. The way you ensure this does not happen is to never encourage exhaling underwater with a beginner – or blowing bubbles. Instead taking a breath and holding it while the face goes in will help your swimmer become confident faster.
It is understandable that parents or teachers have used blowing bubbles in the past as a fun strategy to get kids engaged with water and for some children, there is never an issue. You may be saying to yourself, “I blew bubbles and there were no problems”. However the best way to ensure your child doesn’t ingest water, especially those who are more anxious and therefore more likely to suddenly inhale, is to teach them breath control without exhaling.
When to start Cyclical Breathing
A proper breathing pattern is an important part of swimming freestyle well. Part of this is a consistent exhale (blowing bubbles) when the face is in the water. There are two simple reasons for this: the body will be more relaxed and calm when the body releases the carbon dioxide in the lungs at an even rate. Secondly, inhaling when the face comes out of the water is more efficient when the lungs are empty.