SINGAPORE -The water is an inviting 32 deg C as three mums and a dad slide into their individual swim pods - socially distanced, of course - inside a restored colonial building in Dempsey.
They lift their babies from the chic rattan bassinets placed alongside and ease them into the $1,500 inflatable pools, each of which has a filtration and sanitisation system.
Large photo backdrops of pools add to the resort vibe, as do the trendy chevron-print floor mats and potted plants.
Ms Kristen Romain, founder of Swish! Swimming school, beams as she observes how engaged the parents are with their babies, none of whom throws a tantrum during the 45-minute class.
It is a far cry from late March, when the seven-year-old centre with four pools in Dempsey had to close under pandemic restrictions. For more than three months, it had no revenue.
While demand was strong once it reopened in July, capacity caps and social distancing measures meant that it "hit a ceiling on what we could offer", says Ms Romain. This was especially true for baby classes as a parent has to be present as well.
Other vendors offering classes for babies and toddlers face the same capacity challenges because of the parent involvement needed for this age group.
Sport Singapore's cap of five individuals in a group and one person per 10.7 sq ft of gross floor area means that only two parent-child pairs can attend a session, unless the space can accommodate more than one group. Classes with more than one group must place them 3m apart, with no interaction allowed between groups.
As a result, some centres have suspended their baby courses, others have gone online and a few, like Swish! Swimming, have created new products and programmes to entice parents while staying safe.
With limited spots available in physical classes, some centres report long waiting lists as well.
Ms Romain hit upon the novel concept of private pools for babies and debuted her trial project this month. While she does not know if she will be able to recoup her investment, she is heartened by the initial response from parents, who have signed up for 80 per cent of the available classes.
"They like that they are indoors, the water is temperature controlled and there is music scored to the activities," she says.
In contrast, some centres have hit the pause button on their baby classes, constrained by space limits or safety factors. They include Zoo-Phonics Singapore, which has been running its Zoo Toddlers phonics programme since 2006, and Able Aquatic School, a 39-year-old outfit that has been running baby swim classes for the last 11 years.
The safety and well-being of its young charges and staff were also behind Baby Sensory Singapore's decision to pivot fully online for now. The local offshoot of an award-winning British baby development programme, it is run by a team from the Josiah Montessori childcare group.
It launched the Baby Sensory Singapore @ home series in July to equip parents with ideas on engaging their little ones at home, but class leader Sandra Heng admits that the response has been slow. Its student base has plummeted from 50 pre-Covid-19 to about eight now.
"The majority of our regular parents prefer to come for physical classes for the social factor and also because they prefer not to expose their child below age three to screen time," she says.
The pandemic also scuppered Growing Up Gifted's plans to launch an Early Starters programme for babies aged six to 12 months old, says Ms Deanne Chong-Duffield, founder and chief executive of the group, which offers enrichment courses for children up to age eight. It also runs a pre-school. It has resumed its Smart Babes and Smart Tots classes, with capacity halved to about five children a session.
"Parents have been very eager to return to classes," says Ms Chong-Duffield, adding that both parents and its teachers noticed that babies became "more withdrawn" after the lack of socialisation during the circuit breaker.
Even as centres reopen, many struggle with increased costs because of safety regulations.
VivoKinetics founder Vivian Eng had to hire more part-time coaches for her Vivo Kids Multi-sport Programme for toddlers and says her existing coaches now work longer hours.
Instead of one pitch and two coaches for 10 parent-child pairs before the pandemic, she now needs two pitches and four coaches for eight parent-child pairs.
"It is twice the pre-Covid-19 operation cost. Not forgetting the cost of sanitising amenities and the extra equipment needed too," Ms Eng says, adding she has not raised fees.
At some centres, the pent-up demand for physical classes has led to long waiting lists as parents jostle for limited vacancies.
Heguru Method, which offers a Japanese right-brain training programme, has wait-lists of "six months or even longer for our peak timings", says principal and cofounder Agnes Ng.
Similarly, The Little Gym, Singapore, the local franchisee of an international children's fitness and development chain, has almost 80 children on its wait-list for parent-child classes, says Mr Richard Villarin, its gym director.
Parents who have taken their babies to enrichment classes are eager for more.
Ms Aristi Faezah, 34, says her nine-month-old daughter Leandra Azura enjoyed her two lessons at Swish! Swimming's pods.
"I feel she's quite comfortable in the pod," says the marketing professional, adding that she is hoping to get a spot in the swim school's parent-baby lessons in its other pools.
Babies and toddlers learn through observing, imitating and exploring in a "safe, secure and stimulating environment such as their home", says Dr Mary Varughese, a consultant in the Division of General Ambulatory Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at the National University Hospital.
While parents may enrol very young children in enrichment classes to learn skills that they themselves may not possess, such as swimming or languages, she notes that this age group tends to be clingy and prefers to play alone.
"For these babies, parent-accompanied classes are more beneficial as they promote bonding between parent and child, which should be continued even at home."
Parents should take sensible precautions, like making sure the class has small groups spaced at least 2m apart, washing their babies' hands with soap and water after each session and avoiding classes if they or their kids have flu-like symptoms.
Online enrichment is a "safe alternative" during the pandemic, she adds. Although experts discourage screen time for babies younger than 18 months and advise a 30-minute limit for toddlers aged 18 months to two years old, the type of screen time activity also matters, she stresses.
"For example, 30 minutes of online interaction with an instructor is unlikely to cause harm to a toddler who is accompanied by an involved parent or caregiver."
Enrichment courses for babies and toddlers in phase two and three
This beloved children-focused theatre company has been holding Drama for the Very Young programmes for 26 years. It offers holiday workshops as well as term-based weekly classes where parents and their little ones can bond while exploring imaginative play in a safe environment.
Age range: 18 months to three years old
Fees: Vary according to the programme. For instance, a one-hour workshop earlier this month cost $40 a parent-child pair
At this four-year-old local outpost of an award-winning British programme, babies are exposed to stimulating activities that engage all their senses and boost development and learning. It now offers only online lessons held on Saturdays and lasting 30 to 45 minutes each.
Age range: Newborns to 14 months old (Baby Sensory Singapore @ home), 15 months to 3½ years old (Toddler Sense Singapore @ home)
Fees: Pay $39 for three lessons and get a fourth for free
Info: Call 6338-9050 or go to www.babysensory.sg
This eight-year-old group consists of independent certified instructors who teach Baby Signs, a sign language that allows babies to use gestures to communicate as they cannot yet talk. Classes run weekly for 45 minutes to an hour. Each course takes six weeks and covers different themes through songs, books and activities.
Age range: Newborn to two years old (online), six to 18 months old (physical class)
Fees: $200 (online), $300 (physical class)
GROWING UP GIFTED
This well-known enrichment centre has been running programmes for 18 years and also has a pre-school. Children in its Smart Babes and Smart Tots programmes take part in creative and exploratory activities that nurture their socio-emotional development, self-awareness and confidence. The 90-minute sessions include play-based phonics, baby math, science and food experiments and arts and crafts. Parent-child pairs use a separate entrance from other students.
Age range: 10 to 18 months old (Smart Babes), 18 to 30 months (Smart Tots)
Fees: $240 a month for weekly classes held on weekends, $400 a month for twice-weekly programme held on weekdays.
Info: Call 6258-4722 (Thomson), 6788-4722 (Tampines) or 6970-2198 (Katong); go to www.gugifted.com
This seven-year-old centre offers the Japanese Heguru Method of right-brain training using engaging, fast-paced activities. Each physical class lasts 50 minutes and takes place once a week at its HarbourFront and Choa Chu Kang branches.
Age range: Six months to three years old
Fees: Call or e-mail the centre; it declined to reveal fees
Info: Call 6466-6580 or go to www.hegurumethod.com.sg
THE LITTLE GYM, SINGAPORE
This local franchise of a children's fitness and development programme started in 2003. It offers physical as well as online classes that develop motor skills, coordination, early problem- solving skills and independence. Each session lasts 45 minutes and the frequency is once or twice a week.
Age range: 10 months to three years old (physical classes for various age groups), four months
to 21/2 years old (online classes)
Fees: From $688 once a week for 10 weeks. There is an annual membership fee of $88.
OUR MUSIC STUDIO
This eight-year-old school caters to babies as young as four months old. Parents learn to stimulate their child's learning by exploring objects and instruments, engaging in creative movement activities and vocal play. It has both online (25 minutes) and physical (45 minutes) classes, held weekly.
Age range: Four to 12 months old (Young Musical Babes) and 13 to 17 months old (Musical Babes)
Fees: $35 a class for physical sessions, $15 each for online ones
Info: Call 6467-1789/9824-0198 or go to www.ourmusicstudio.com.sg
This seven-year-old swim school operates learn-to-swim programmes for children across four pools in the Dempsey area.
Its latest offering is swim pods - indoor individual pools for babies new to swimming. During the 45-minute sessions, parents bond with their babies while teaching them foundation skills such as blowing bubbles and floating. Classes can be taken weekly or more frequently.
Age range: Three to 18 months old
Fees: $59 a class. Sign up by the end of this month to receive a welcome gift that includes baby products.
The Vivo Kids Multi-sport Programme exposes toddlers to various sports using age-appropriate equipment, games and music. This expands their spatial and body awareness. Classes are held weekly or twice weekly for 45 minutes each.
Age range: 20 to 36 months old
Fees: $28 to $38 a session, depending on the package. There is a registration fee of $50.