There I was at the baby swim-and-gym class at the YMCA, showing everyone how I'd failed as a mother.

There were Sean, Lucy, Ben, Will and Ambe doing somersaults on the mats and splashing and kicking in the pool. And there was my 18-month-old Caroline, screaming her head off and clinging to me with all 10 fingernails.

I found an excuse to skip the second session. The third week I decided to grit my teeth and try it again - after all, I'd already paid $14.80 for the six-week course.

During the gym half-hour, Caroline resisted all the organized and just did her own thing. She crawled through a barrel and toddled on a balance beam, but she didn't cry - at least not until Sean ran off with her tennis ball.She gave the pool an icy stare at first, but when I jumped in she let herself be held under the arms and pulled around the pool.

"Kick, kick!" urged a chorus of "moms," as the teacher interchargeably addressed us. A parent, of either sex, has to accompany each child, but the "dads," if any, use another locker room down the hall.

Walking around in the shallow end of the pool chanting "Kick, kick!" gives the kids a chance to exchange shy glances and gives the parents a chance to compare notes. All of the others, I learned, had taken the course at least once before, and many of the kids had screamed through the first few sessions. I felt a lot better, and when Ben started cyring I felt absolutely smug.

Virginia Gilstrap, the cheerfully determined instructor, doesn't let this aimless socializing go on too long. She organizes games like "Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall," in which the babies are supposed to to belly flops into the parents' waiting arms, and "All Around the Mulberry Bush," in which everyone parades in a circle and whirls around at the appropriate time. I could never quite get the hang of "All Around the Mulberry Bush," but Gilstrap was always very patient about telling us I was turning in the wrong direction.

Most babies seem to kick their feet in the water readily enough, whether they understand what "Kick, kick!" means or not. Getting them to pull with their arms is more difficult. You're supposed to hold them under the stomach and work their arms, giving them something to reach for - like the side of the pool or a rubber duck. Competition for the rubber ducks may not lead to good arm motion, but it does often lead to fights. "Now, now, she had it first," the mothers coo in the falsetto mothers always use when talking to their babies in front of other people.

By the end of the course, Caroline was somersaulting enthusiastically and playing ring-around-the-rosy with joyful abandon. In the pool, she was willingly falling off Humpty Dumpty's wall and even going under. In the latter exercises, the instructor pushes the baby off the side of the pool toward the parent, who is supposed to let the kid stay under water for a few seconds.

A kid named Will actually seemed to be swimming a few strokes under water. His mother said that Will, now two, had been taking the course continually since he was five months old, the minimum age for the swim-and-gym class.

Gilstrap calls Will's stroke, a sort of underwater dog-paddle, "the human stroke." Babies, she explains, aren't developed or coordinated enough to learn the Red Cross crawl.

"I can't say how long it takes to teach a child to swim," says Gilstrap. "Every child is different. We make no guarantees. What we're doing is helping the child become oriented to the water and become as safe as possible in water. We're teaching the parents how to teach the children."

Some pediatricians object to swimming lessons for children under three, and the Y requires a signed permission slip from each baby's doctor.

"I've taught too many thousands of children not to think it's good for them," says Gilstrap."It helps coordination; it even helps them learn to read and write better by developing that part of the brain."

The only danger to the kids, according to Gilstrap, is an unskilled teacher or pushy parents who threaten and even punish reclutant swimmers.

"Some of them seem to think the kid is in training for the Olympics," says Gilstrap.

Better to comfort, encourage, priase and be patient, until you can finally shout: "You've swum a short way, baby!"