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Survival Swimming - Swim Lessons for Kids

Water Safety Basics

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Updated June 01, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

An infant taking a swimming class with her father at the YMCA.

An infant taking a swimming class with her father at the YMCA.

Photo by John Anderson/Creative Commons License

Water Safety

Many people think about water safety and are concerned about the risks of drowning when their kids are near water. They may childproof their pool, have their kids wear a life-jacket, supervise them around the water, and even get them early swimming lessons.

Still, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children at almost all ages and about 3,880 people drown each year in the United States.

That makes it important to be aware of drowning hazards in and around your home, and:

  • put environmental protections in place, such as four-sided pool fencing to separate a backyard swimming pool from the house
  • not drink alcohol while swimming, boating, or supervising kids in the water
  • make sure all boaters and kids who can't swim well always wear a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device
  • be aware of drowning hazards in and around your home, including nearby pools, ponds, and canals
  • learn CPR

And of course, it is important to teach your kids to swim.

While that once meant waiting until your kids were at least four or five years old, many experts now advise that younger kids learn survival swimming skills to make sure they are safe if they get in the water.

Swimming Lessons

The American Academy of Pediatrics had long been against swimming lessons for toddlers and preschoolers. That position changed in 2010, when they softened their opposition to swimming lessons for younger children.

The main focus of the AAP is that all children learn to swim, though, and not on early swimming lessons. Parents who are thinking about the best time to start swim lessons should keep in mind that the AAP states that "by 4 years of age, most children can learn basic aquatic locomotion, and by 5 or 6 years of age, most of them can master the front crawl."

That is why many parents start swim lessons when kids are four years old to learn basic skills and then do lessons again the next year, when most kids really learn to swim. And they can continue regular lessons after that to improve their swimming skills.

Survival Swimming Skills

Although it is still thought that most children aren't developmentally ready for formal swimming lessons -- in which they can learn to swim well on their own -- until they are at least four years old, the AAP now states that some swimming instruction may help lower the risk of drowning for younger children between the ages of one to four years of age.

Keep in mind that the AAP doesn't actually recommend swim lessons for all toddlers and preschoolers under age of four years. They simply aren't against these types of survival skills programs anymore and state that parents should enroll their kids if they think that the "benefits of infant or toddler water programs outweigh any possible dangers."

What are the possible dangers of early swimming lessons?

They include the fact that it makes some parents believe that their children are drown-proof, which can put kids at increased risk for drowning. There is also a concern that early swimming lessons can reduce an infant or toddler's fear of the water, making them more likely to go near or in the water without supervision.

The American Red Cross Advisory Council on First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness also has an optional recommendation that "young children may optionally start swim lessons for the purpose of building aquatic readiness and water acclimation on an individual basis any time after the first or second year of life."

These early swim lessons teach basic survival skills, including the ability to:

  • right oneself after falling into the water
  • proceed a short distance in the water, such as to the side of the pool
  • float or tread water until someone can pull them out of the water

Although they don't include ages, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seems to go a little further in their recommendations than many other experts, stating that "To prevent drowning, all parents and children should learn survival swimming skills."

Parents who choose this type of survival swimming skills training can likely find classes at their local YMCA, American Red Cross Chapter, and private infant aquatic and infant swimming resource providers.

Avoiding Water Safety Mistakes

Learning survival swimming skills or enrolling in a toddler aquatic program can be a good idea for some younger children, but it is certainly not the best way to keep your kids safe around the water. The best way to prevent drowning is to supervise your kids around the water, childproof your pool, and make sure your kids always wear a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device when they are in or around the water.

It is also important to avoid common water safety mistakes, such as:

  • using floaties as a replacement for a Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device
  • leaving the ladder in an above-ground pool
  • letting older kids swim alone, even if they can swim well -- use the buddy system instead, encouraging your kids to always swim with a friend
  • allowing easy access to your pool or spa, without an isolation pool fence (a fence that is at least 4-feet tall around the pool with self-closing and self-latching gates)
  • installing a chain-link fence or short fence (too easy to climb) or using your house as the fourth side of a fence around your pool, allowing access to the pool through a door or window from the house
  • not looking in the water first when a child is missing
  • not teaching your child to swim
  • overlooking water hazards in and around your home, such as ponds, hot tubs, and even the bath tub
  • leaving kids alone in or around the water, even for just a few minutes

Even when you try to avoid mistakes and do everything right, accidents can happen. That is why it is best to use a "layers of protection" method to keep your kids safe around the water. Using more than one type of child safety technique as a protection against drowning means that if one protective layer breaks down, then one of the other layers of protection will still be in place to keep your kids safe. For example, if someone leaves the back door of the house open and your toddler gets in the back yard, then you still have a fence keeping your child out of the pool.

Some parents consider learning survival swimming skills to be the last layer of protection keeping their kids safe. If all of the other layers break down and your child ends up in the water, then hopefully those survival swimming skills will keep him from drowning until you can pull him out of the water.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Technical Report: Prevention of Drowning. Pediatrics 2010; 126:1 e253-e262

American Red Cross, Advisory Council on First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness. ACFASP scientific review: minimum age for swimming lessons. June 2009.

CDC. Drowning — United States, 2005–2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. May 18, 2012 / 61(19), 344-347.

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