Swimming is a fun hobby for many children and feeling confident in the water can help them stay safe. You might be concerned about how your deaf child can enjoy swimming and overcome the challenges it may present. There are lots of ways to support your child when it comes to swimming, from deaf-friendly lessons, to poolside communication tips and protection for their hearing technology.
After making some deaf-friendly adjustments, Mum Wendy can see that her daughter Daisy (6) has found a new way to have fun and build her confidence through swimming.
“We’ve come a long way and are so proud of her. She’s recently been moved up a level and thoroughly enjoys swimming!”
Here’s a selection of practical tips and advice to help you make sure your deaf child gets the most out of swimming and has fun in the water.
Can my child wear hearing aids or cochlear implants when swimming?
Hearing aids and cochlear implants are expensive, and most aren’t designed to be around water.
There are waterproof accessories for cochlear implants which allow children and deaf young people with implants to go swimming. Depending on the type of cochlear implant your child wears, this may be called the Nucleus Aqua Kit, the Advanced Bionics AquaCase, the Cochlear Aqua or the MEDEL Waterwear. If your child wasn't given a waterproof accessory with their processor, ask your audiologist whether one could be ordered.
If your child doesn't have a waterproof kit for their cochlear implant, make sure to remove the external parts of the implant (the speech processor and headpiece) before going in the pool.
There are currently no waterproof hearing aids available for deaf children. Most hearing aids are described as ‘water resistant’, which means that they shouldn't be damaged by sweat or rain, but wearers still need to be careful and make sure they’re not fully immersed in water. Make sure hearing aids are taken out when swimming as water will damage them. Store them safely in a waterproof container or dry bag with your child’s name on it.
Is it safe to swim with grommets?
Some surgeons will advise you not to let your child swim with grommets as direct access of water into the middle ear which can lead to ear infections. However, if the surgeon does allow them to swim you should still take precautions:
- Don't take your child swimming for at least 3 weeks after grommet surgery.
- Don’t swim in lakes or non-chlorinated pools (e.g. where the water may have a high bacteria count).
- Don’t let them dive or jump into the water (this forces water through the grommet into the middle ear).
- Wear a swimming cap.
- Use swim moulds and neoprene headbands (see below).
- For more information about bathing with grommets see our section on treating glue ear.
What’s the best way to stop water getting in the ears?
Swim moulds are recommended for children who have had surgery to insert a grommet to treat glue ear or those who’ve had recurrent ear infections or perforated eardrums.
Swim moulds come in a range of styles and colours. They may have small handles to allow easy insertion or removal and have a neck cord attached between the two. They are usually manufactured in a material that floats. If swim moulds are needed for medical reasons the NHS audiology department will normally make them for your child free of charge. They can also be purchased privately from audiology departments or private high street hearing aid dispensers.
Custom-made swim moulds are made by taking an impression your child’s ear shape. This is manufactured into a silicone swim mould. Custom swim moulds need to be remade as your child grows so they still fit.
Swim moulds will temporarily increase your child’s level of deafness. If your child has mild deafness and is usually able to hear sounds without their hearing aids, they will hear less.
Mouldable ear putty is available from chemists or specialist swim shops. Like swim moulds, ear putty will temporally increase your child’s level of deafness.
Neoprene headbands are designed to keep swim moulds or ear putty in place. They’re not necessary for many deaf children. However, if your doctor advises that water should be kept out of your child’s ears this is an option.
What’s the best way to use ear putty or swim moulds?
- Ear putty and swim moulds should only be used on or near the surface of the water. They aren’t suitable for underwater swimming or diving.
- Make sure your child wears a tight-fitting swim cap or a neoprene headband while swimming.
- Use a thin layer of petroleum jelly (e.g. Vaseline) to put the mould in and to maintain a good seal around the edge.
- Ear putty and swim moulds should never be shared.
Check out the venue
Some swimming pools may have slightly better acoustics than others and this can make it easier for your child to hear their teacher.
Wendy is mum to Daisy (6) who is severely deaf and getting used to swimming.
“Daisy never liked swimming as a baby and was quite fretful when I took her to a big pool. After making enquiries, I found a special needs school that let us use their hydrotherapy pool. It was brilliant for Daisy as it was small and quiet. Her confidence grew, but it took a long time for her to get used to a bigger pool without her aids.”
Consider group size vs. teacher ratio
Your child may benefit from being in a smaller group with additional swimming teachers or assistants to help support their communication needs.
Lauren (20) is profoundly deaf and works as a swimming coach. She didn’t always find lessons easy but smaller classes helped.
“I had to do three years of swimming lessons and it was quite frustrating because it was extremely noisy and I didn’t feel very involved in the lessons. Eventually I was put with an instructor in one-to-one sessions which made a big difference for me. I was able to progress and understand what I needed to do and why.”
Think about teaching style
Observe the swimming teacher and check whether their style is well-suited to your child. Swimming can be taught in a visual way – for example, do they use actions and gestures to demonstrate what needs to be done?
Mum Wendy managed to find a great instructor who makes adjustments for her severely deaf daughter Daisy (6).
“The swimming teacher uses gestures, and Daisy’s first in line in the pool so she’s nearest the teacher. She lip-reads the teacher and also watches the other children.”
Once you have found a swimming club, share our Deaf Friendly Swimming Toolkit with the teacher, so they can get lots of top tips on how to make sure your child has an inclusive swimming experience.
Try out different technology
There’s lots of technology that can help your child and make learning to swim accessible.
Libby (13) uses an aqua kit during her lessons. These kits have a specialised processor magnet and cover for one processor, enabling it to be worn in water.
“The aqua kit has made a big difference as now I can hear my coach’s corrections really clearly.”
Libby’s dad Paul was really impressed with how technology has helped his daughter when she’s swimming.
“Libby uses a mini mic – like a radio aid; the coach wears a microphone which connects wirelessly with her processor. It has a range of 25 metres. It’s brilliant; she can hear in and out of the water. It’s made a massive difference to her.”
Communication tips for swimming lessons
- Discuss the best way to communicate with your child and their teacher. This includes mentioning if a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter is needed.
- During lessons it’s helpful if the teacher lets other children go first and encourages your child to watch the others so they know what to do when it’s their turn.
- Make sure teachers are aware your child may not hear auditory cues. Discuss how they can get your child’s attention. This could be visual cues like hand waving, splashing the water, asking other group members to get their attention, waving a flag, or using a buddy system where they pair with a hearing child and don’t swim away from each other.
- Kit your child out with a different coloured swimming cap to the rest of the group. This will help teachers spot them easily.
- Ask the teacher to position the child in the lane nearest the side of the pool to make communication easier.
- Make sure all safety instructions are given before your child enters the pool, while their hearing aids or cochlear implants are still in place. It’s important to include stop, wait, jump, don’t jump and get out of the water.
Many public swimming pools and health clubs run swimming parties and recreational swimming programmes throughout the week. Here are some useful points to remember when your child is swimming outside of lessons:
- There are usually age requirements for recreational swimming at public pools. Check what these are at your local pool in advance.
- Make sure lifeguards know your child is deaf so they can to use visual cues and keep an eye out in case they don’t hear the whistle or verbal instructions.
- If your child will be swimming unaccompanied in a new environment, ask staff to give them a tour of the pool and facilities. Make your child knows of emergency arrangements and things such as wave machines, using visual cues when the machine starts.
- If attending a swimming party, the organiser and lifeguards should be informed that your child is deaf. A clear system should be agreed in the event of an emergency. This could be a visual cue or adopting a ‘buddy’ system.
- Watch our videos with all the basic BSL signs you’ll need to help you communicate with your deaf child when swimming.
When taking part in competitive swimming, one big challenge is hearing the starting buzzer and knowing when to dive into the pool.
Tracy-anne is mum to Daisy (10), who is moderately deaf.
“At swimming galas, because she doesn’t hear the pistol fire, one of the coaches crouches down and taps her leg.”
Paul is dad to Libby (13) who is moderately deaf and knows how important timing is when it comes to races.
“She’s always last in the water. When times are measured in hundredths of a second it matters! Some clubs have a lights system on the start blocks that work in tandem with the buzzer and it makes a huge difference.”