Baby Tabitha was thrown in deep end - with confidence.

She was just 10 months old, but Tabitha Handley was learning an important life lesson. It was one her mum knows the importance of all too well: confidence.

"That's definitely something that I wanted for all my children, for them to be confident in themselves," says mother Heather Henare, now a grandmother of six and the head of Women's Refuge.

Confidence - and the value of being able to swim in a country with a very long coastline and thousands of lakes and rivers.

Mum's hands were close by but out of sight, and Tabitha must have felt like she was on her own under the water that summer's day in 1987.


Tabitha was nonplussed.

But by the age of 1, Henare says, her baby was able to kick her way to the surface and dog-paddle to the pool edge.

The pair were taking part in a Tepid Baths programme teaching babies to be confident in the water so they would not panic if they fellin.

Henare was right to prepare her daughter - two years earlier annual drowning rates had soared to a record 215.

Drowning remains consistently the third highest cause of unintentional death in New Zealand, says Water Safety NZ, which is hosting an international water safety and aquatic education conference in Queenstown next month.

Henare says she signed up Tabitha for the programme after the tot's older brother almost joined that solemn roll call.

"My oldest son was an absolute nightmare in the water. He would run ahead and jump straight in. He nearly drowned twice.

"I thought that programme was such a great initiative that every mum should be taught how to do it."


It certainly set up Handley, now aged 27 and living in Paraparaumu with two confident water babies of her own, for a lifetime love of the water. "I'm quite confident and I've always been good in the water," she says.

"I was top of the swimming class at school."

She is grateful for those early lessons.

"I know some adults who can't swim now and I feel so sorry for them because I never had that.

"It's really important that people are confident in the water."