In recent years, infant and toddler swim programs have become popular, leaving many parents wondering when it is appropriate for a child to start taking swimming lessons. While there is no simple or conclusive answer, there is information and guidelines available to help parents keep their child safe when it comes to swimming.
Swimming is a fun way to stay healthy for life, but there is no need to rush into swim lessons for your child. Before 2010, the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was that children are not developmentally ready for swim lessons until after their fourth birthday. This position was based on the following:
- Lack of conclusive research on whether or not swim programs increase or decrease the likelihood of drowning;
- Concerns that early swim lessons would cause a false sense of security and reduce parent supervision; and
- Evidence that starting swim lessons before age 4 does not result in earlier development of proficient swimming skills.
Although only a few studies have been conducted, the latest research suggests swimming lessons may reduce drowning risk. So, the AAP has softened its position, suggesting there are “possible benefits of swimming lessons for young children.”
Since there are still no conclusive answers to questions about when swim lessons should start, whether or not they are safe, and if they work, a child’s readiness for swim lessons should be determined by parents in consultation with their family physician. The AAP does, however, still strongly discourage programs for infants less than 1 year of age because there is no evidence whatsoever of decreased risk of drowning.
Here is what we do know: By far the most common causes of death in young children are unintentional injuries, and drowning is the most common cause of accidental death in children aged 1 to 4 years old. Many parents want to “drown-proof” their children, but swim lessons won’t necessarily help. The single most important factor in pediatric drowning is the level of supervision. Most drowning accidents occur when a parent leaves the scene for only a brief period or isn’t paying close attention. The key to preventing drowning accidents is direct supervision by an adult who is never more than an arms-length away.
Popular YouTube videos typically show infants demonstrating what is called “the diving reflex,” which is actually a survival reflex that causes an infant to hold her breath. When an infant is submerged in cold water, the body’s survival response is to slow the heart rate and shift blood away from the limbs to conserve oxygen for the brain and heart. To achieve this state, a natural reflex occurs, causing the infant to hold her breath for a short period of time. The reflex does prevent water from getting into the lungs for brief periods, but does not prevent an infant from swallowing large amounts of water. Infant swim programs that are aware of this risk do not support activities where the infant is totally submerged.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents participating in water orientation classes that do not fully submerge infants. Exposing children to water so they aren’t scared of it is appropriate. Classes that take a relaxed, fun approach and provide important safety information can be beneficial, but each parent has to decide individually whether or not his or her child is developmentally ready for swim classes.
If you plan on having some fun in the water this summer, remember these additional safety guidelines for children of all ages:
- Never leave a child alone while he is in or around enough water to drown, even for a few seconds. Any quality swim program will teach kids that they should never be near water without an adult.
- Make sure a lifeguard is present, even if your child is old enough to swim without parental supervision.
- Putting an appropriate fence around your home pool is a proven means of decreasing the risk of drowning. Pool covers have not been proven to be an adequate substitution for fencing.
- Swim lessons after age 4 are important. Remember, it takes months or years of instruction for your children to become good swimmers.
- If you are thinking about starting swim lessons for your little one, it should be an individual decision that you discuss with your child’s doctor.
- Every child should wear a personal flotation device (like a life jacket) when on a boat or similar watercraft.
- And, without question, always wear sunscreen outdoors.
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