Can babies hold their breath underwater?

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Can babies hold their breath underwater?

Many people have heard before that infants know how to hold their breath when submerged. There is some evidence to support the idea that infants hold their breath under water. However, the reflex does not appear to be that strong and is not very reliable, especially in older babies. In addition, other reactions can compete with this breath holding reflex, including the startle reflex. So if you suddenly submerge a baby under the water, they may actually do like this with their mouth open and actually suck in and cough on water. Fortunately, all babies can be safely prepared for under water swimming by using a signal, and I'm going to demonstrate. You take your child in your arms, and you say, "Name, ready, go," model taking a breath, and then dump a little water over their face. You follow with a reward. So, "Dolly, ready, go." (breath) Dump a little water, and then right away you want to bring something fun. If you go slowly enough and with just a tiny bit of water, only increasing water as your child becomes comfortable, they will begin to expect this as a fun routine. When your child shows knowledge that the water is coming by tightly closing their eyes and even lowering their head, they'll be ready for under water submersions.

Watch Nicole Hill, MA's video on Can babies hold their breath underwater?...


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Nicole Hill, MA

Behaviorist & Swim Instructor

Nicole Hill, Director of Autism Services and CEO of Brightwork ABA Therapy is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).  Nicole has been working in the field of ABA since 2005.  She has a Master of Arts in Applied Behavior Analysis, a BA in Speech Communication, and a minor in Spanish.

Nicole has a broad range of experience stemming from working with children from birth through high school in a variety of capacities for over 15 years.  Nicole specializes in working with young children on the autism spectrum and their families, with particular focus on  early intervention including FBA’s, BIP’s, verbal behavior, DTT, natural environment teaching, play skills, social skills, and parent training. 

Nicole originally began her work with special needs children in 1998 as a swim instructor for children who found learning to swim especially challenging.  With this experience, Nicole founded SwimFit Babies & Kids (, a program that uses techniques founded in ABA to teach swim techniques. 

She is an active member of Applied Behavior Analysis, International (ABAI) as well as California Association for Applied Behavior Analysis (CalABA).

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