Nurturing Water Confidence: Understanding the Gag Reflex in Infant Swimming Lessons

Babies are truly remarkable beings, born with innate reflexes that help them navigate the world from the moment they arrive. As parents, it’s fascinating to witness these reflexes in action, especially when they come into play during your swim lessons. One key reflex that holds great significance in our swimmers’ journey is the “Gag Reflex”. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the intricacies of the Gag Reflex, its importance in water safety, and how we use it to foster water confidence.

What is the Gag Reflex? 

The Gag Reflex is an automatic response babies exhibit when water comes into contact with their mouths. It’s a vital defense mechanism that enables them to prevent water from entering their airways, primarily the lungs.  

Understanding the Mechanics 

Imagine the scenario: your baby is gently submerged underwater during a swim lesson. What happens next is nothing short of incredible. As water touches your little one’s mouth, the Gag Reflex kicks in. The glottis and epiglottis – tiny structures located in the throat- close off, forming a barrier that safeguards the airway from potential water entry for short periods of time. This rapid response is nature’s way of ensuring your child can hold their breath and avoid inhaling water. 

From Reflex to Control 

As your baby continues to grow and develop, so does their ability to adapt and learn. The Gag Reflex, while crucial in the early stages, gradually paves the way for conscious breath control. This transition is a remarkable milestone, allowing your child to become more aware of their body and its interactions with the water. 

The Role of our Word Associations  

In our swim lessons, Water Babies utilizes the power of Word Associations.  We use the questions “Name, Are You Ready? Go” or “Name, Are You Ready? Bubbles” which prompt your little one to prepare for submersion and build a foundation for future breath control once the gag reflex diminishes. (around 6 months old). 

 Every submersion during Water Babies lessons is baby-focused. We will skip the underwater swim if your little one is crying, hiccupping or sleeping. For the same reason we also integrate a pause after asking our question to ensure our swimmers are ready to be submerged. Down the line the pause allows our toddlers to hold their breath and exhale underwater.  

These word associations establish a connection between the reflex and conscious awareness, empowering your baby to play an active role in their underwater experience. 


The Gag Reflex is a remarkable aspect of your baby’s development, enabling them to navigate water with an innate ability. Through our swim lessons, we build a strong foundation of water confidence and safety awareness. By supporting and celebrating each step of this journey, you’re not only fostering a love for the water but also empowering your child with essential life skills.