The benefits of swimming for children with heart conditions

Rachael and Steph from SWiRL, a company that supports those with special educational needs, processing disorders and medical conditions to access swimming, discuss the benefits of swimming for children with heart conditions.

As a company, we passionately believe that swimming awareness and support should be discussed and written about. Research shows the benefits of swimming for children with any medical conditions, especially those with heart conditions. 

Both as parents, and Steph as an Autism Swim approved instructor, we have seen first-hand the benefits swimming can have – not only for a child’s confidence but also to help regulate the body and provide necessary life skills.

Rachael says,“As a parent of a neuro-diverse child with a heart condition we enrolled Henry into a swim program with an approved Autism Swim specialist.  This provides Henry with water therapy, drowning prevention and gentle exercise, which is beneficial to his heart condition, general health and progression to independent swimming.  

The water therapy assists with Henry’s sensory processing and the vestibular feedback provided by the water enables him to focus on motor and language skills in a way he is unable to do out of the water (without support and intervention).  Noticeably, Henry is able to articulate himself verbally very well when he is in the water. He is keen to repeat speech and practice it in context. 

Henry has made significant progress. He has demonstrated an ability to keep himself safe, through practising the immediate actions on falling into the water and has shown he can call for help.  In addition to this, he understands what to do and is able to show safely that he can raise the alarm if someone else is in difficulty in the water. Given where he is with his communication skills generally, this is an incredible achievement.”

All children and young people benefit from being physically active, including those with a congenital heart condition. 

The benefits for children and young people with a congenital heart condition include:

1.    The heart is a muscle, and regular physical activity can improve the function of the heart and circulation. 

2.    It can help improve lung function and lung capacity. 

3.    Physical activity boosts the immune system and improves the feeling of well-being. 

4.    Children on medication especially those on an anticoagulant such as or Warfarin or Aspirin are at an increased risk of bruising or cutting themselves, which can make some sports completely off limits and others can leave a parent feeling anxious over any potential bumps, trips or falls. Swimming provides a safe and positive environment for a child to participate in sport on an equal footing, and develops confidence through participation in a place where they can be just like the other kids.

When they first start doing more physical activity, some children and young people with congenital heart conditions feel more tired, but with time stamina and energy levels improve. 

It is finding the right advice and support that will help parents/caregivers have the confidence to support their child with their swimming experiences.

Steph says, “At the swim school I work for we teach a number of children with underlying heart conditions, some more obvious than others. As part of our enrolment criteria, all potential clients are asked to fill out a medical history, if there is a condition that we are unfamiliar with we will always seek advice.  We always discuss with a parent or carer the impact of a condition on a child and ask for specific signs in their child that they may be struggling in some way or may be fatigued, so that we can bring this to the attention of the parents discreetly but immediately.  If, for whatever reason, the pool temperature drops we always notify parents of cardiac children in advance so that they have the opportunity to either dress more warmly for the lesson or rearrange with us.

We have a number of very talented swimmers who have underlying heart conditions; sometimes they fatigue more easily than others but this can sometimes be mitigated. For example, one of our swimmers was doing brilliantly but suddenly started getting more and more tired (and frustrated at this). After talking with the parents, we identified that changes of routine at school had fed into this increased fatigue.  We were able to move the child to a different session on a different day where they have less going on and they are continuing to thrive.

Some children, or indeed parents, can be worried about the questions that may arise from scars being on show. To date, I have only had one swimmer who has been questioned about this. It was a good learning opportunity for the children in the class, who afterwards felt a greater level of respect by understanding they had a real warrior in their midst.”

To help a child thrive with swimming you can:

1.    Find swimwear that will keep heat around their body. Children with heart conditions lose heat a lot quicker, so fleece lined neoprene suits can help with this. Temperature matters; those with cardiac conditions may be placed under extra stress by exercising in cooler conditions*

2.    Make sure, when looking for a swim instructor, they are aware of your child’s condition. This is not something to be embarrassed about, more to make everyone aware and know how best to keep your child safe.

3.    Initially, look for a pool that runs at a minimum temperature of 30°C, so your child doesn’t feel as cold. Swim schools that run baby and pre-school lessons or disability lesson sessions should be running at a suitable temperature according to industry guidelines.

Most public swimming pools are regulated at 29°C. We advise to phone and check with the pool to see. We find that private pools have a warmer swimming temperature.

4.  Find out if the air temperature is a similar temperature to the water. Ideally the temperatures should be within 1-2°C of each other. For a child who may be more susceptible to feeling the cold, this can be very important.  Finding out if your child has to spend time waiting out of the water whilst wet can also be helpful; any swim school should work with you to make any reasonable adjustments for your child.


5. Have a hooded towel or swim robe to put on immediately on exiting the pool can be helpful in maintaining body temperature.

This blog post was written by Rachael Ladd and Steph Wilson.

Always consult your child’s doctor or medical team before beginning any swimming or exercise program.

Swirl is looking for people to complete their survey, to help them understand the barriers facing individuals, families, carers and children when it comes to learning and enjoying swimming. If you are able to help by taking part, please complete the survey here.