Getting ears comfortable in the water is surprisingly impactful! We usually target getting the eyes wet and blowing bubbles first, but often ears are the real culprits when children are uncomfortable getting their faces in the water. If your child wears goggles, and knows how to hold her breath and blow bubbles, desensitizing the ears should be your next goal.
As a pediatric occupational therapist and a swimming instructor, I personally find that addressing ears FIRST gets the quickest results. Targeting the ears is often less threatening than trying to get your child to put his/her whole face in the water at once. This is true for typically developing children as well as those with Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory challenges.
Now for some tips!
1. Teach “listen to the fish.” "Talk to the fish (blow bubbles), listen to the fish" (ear in the water) is a game I often use to teach rotary breathing for the front crawl stroke. For the purpose of desensitizing the ears, we will just pretend we are listening to the fish who , obviously, are talking underwater. Face each other while playing this game. Your happy, smiling face is calming and shows the child that this is fun. Start a conversation and keep an ongoing dialogue about what the “fishies” are saying. This will keep the game going and distract the child from feeling uncomfortable. The longer you play the more desensitizing. Here’s an excerpt from a recent mom/child team that I coached:
Mom: “I’m gonna ask the fishy what his name is.”///“Fishy, what’s your name?”///“I can’t hear him, Johnny, what did he say?”///Sara: Listens.///“Fred! He said his name is Fred.”///Mom: “Fred, how old are you? Wait…What! It’s your birthday?”
Usually children get pretty creative with this game. Stick with it as long as possible. If you are also working on breath control, you can “talk to the fish” by blowing bubbles.
2. Simon Says. Start with movements your child is most comfortable doing. For example, “Simon says tap your head, splash the water, etc.” Spend lots of time on activities your child can do easily. Work your way to “Simon says put your ear in the water.”
Once your child gets used to placing her ears in the water, add movement! This will further desensitize her, and get her used to the feeling of water moving along her ears, the way it does when you are swimming a stroke. For example, “Simon says put your elbow in the water and wiggle it.” And eventually “put your ear in the water and wiggle it.” Do not underestimate the power of being silly and ridiculous!
3. The Hokey Pokey. This is the same concept as Simon Says. Start with “put your hand in, take your hand out, other hand in, foot in, other foot in, belly in…”etc. Work you way to “put your ear in and shake it all about.” Children are often more accepting of shaking ears in the water for this game. It is the Hokey Pokey after all, and you need to “shake it all about.” That’s just how you play the game.
4. Side Glide. Now it's time to glide with the ears in the water. Support your child in a side lying position and walk her across the shallow end of the pool. Use whatever imagery or pretend play works for your child. You can “listen to the fish all the way across” or pretend you are taking a nap. Make sure to do this on both sides. You can tell your child you don’t “want them to be lopsided,” or “the other side wants a turn”.
5. Back float lullaby. If your child is relaxed enough, try pulling him/her across the pool in a supported black float position. This gets both ears in the water together with movement. Have your child lay her head on the “pillow” (your shoulder) with arms extended like an airplane. Place your hands under the hips to support. Have your child choose and sing a bedtime lullaby. This will both distract and relax her. Move slowly.