Playing in the water is a great way to beat the heat. And yet every year, kids drown. From 1999 to 2010, nearly 14,000 Americans age 19 and younger drowned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty percent of those cases were among children ages 1 to 4, and at least half of those deaths occurred in swimming pools.
The good news is that the rate of accidental drowning has decreased in recent decades. This trend may reflect the more widespread adoption of preventive strategies such as pool fencing and swimming lessons.
But as swimming programs — including those for children as young as 6 months — proliferate, a difficult question remains: At what age is it ideal for children to take swim lessons?
Kids won’t really become competent swimmers until age 6 or 7, says Terri Lees, who is a Red Cross instructor trainer and sits on the organization’s Scientific Advisory Council. But it’s a slow progression, she says. “Just like a child slowly progresses from immobile to walking over months,” so starting at 4 or 5 can be helpful, she says.
Also, parent-and-baby classes offer the opportunity for parents to hear water safety messages that may help protect their children.
Concerns have been raised that kids who take lessons too early might develop a false sense of security around water and therefore be more in danger of drowning than kids who don’t.
The American Association of Pediatrics says children can safely take swim lessons as early as age 1. Until 2010, the AAP had specified this number as age 4, but when research showed a reduced risk of drowning in preschoolers who had taken swimming lessons, the organization amended its advice.
A 2009 U.S. study found an 88 percent reduction in drowning risk in kids ages 1 to 4 who had taken swimming lessons. Researchers identified 61 such drownings and compared the victims to children in the same communities who were similar in age and gender.
The sample was indeed small, says study author Ruth Brenner, an investigator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. While its size limits wider extrapolations, the study did show that swimming instruction reduced rather than increased risk, she says. A similar study conducted in China found that swimming lessons reduced drowning risk by 40 percent.
Brenner says she doesn’t know of any other studies comparing swimming programs on drowning risk in kids younger than 5.
Survival programs such as the Infant Swimming Resource and Infant Aquatics promise to teach children as young as 6 months how to maneuver themselves so they are floating on their backs. You can watch babies doing just this on the companies’ Web sites. The videos can be disturbing to watch, if only because seeing babies underwater is unsettling.
The lessons can present an emotional hurdle for parents, says Michael Middleton, a pediatrician in Orlando. Hundreds of his patients have taken survival swimming lessons, as have his own children.
“This is not water enjoyment. The child is being forced to do something they’re not comfortable doing,” Middleton says. But it’s worth it, he says, especially in a place such as Florida, where water is ubiquitous and drowning occurs with “tragic frequency.”
As for the developmental appropriateness of survival swimming classes, Middleton says many infants do learn to float on their back by 12 months. “Some don’t get it. They need refresher courses,” he says.
The survival strategy has been around since the 1960s and the classes can be found in most communities, but it’s hardly mainstream. Neither the American Red Cross nor the CDC was willing to comment specifically on the practice. “I’m unaware of studies in the research literature evaluating that,” Brenner says.
When to start swimming lessons depends in part on your child and your family, says Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Is your child emotionally and physically ready for swim lessons? Does your family spend a lot of time near water or on a boat, or is there a pond on your property?
Choosing a program comes with its own set of questions, beginning with a look at pool temperature and quality.
One risk of swimming is what the professionals call recreational water illness. Children who swim are exposed to a host of pathogenic germs, and babies in particular tend to swallow the water they’re swimming in. Also, water that is too cold is not good for babies, Gilchrist says. “You have to watch out for hypothermia.”
Class size and level of supervision also is important. American Red Cross lessons have no more than 10 students per instructor, Lees says. With younger children or less experienced instructors, a lower ratio is better. A lifeguard should be on duty during a class, she says. “The teacher cannot also act as a lifeguard.”
As for teaching style, look for encouragement, not pressure or coercion, Gilchrist says. “Are kids pushed to do things they don’t want to do?”
Lessons for kids too young to swim should include safety skills such as controlled breathing and floating on one’s back, Gilchrist says. Also, parent-and-baby classes should cover risk awareness and safety measures that parents can take to keep their kids safe.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article omitted the first name and job title of Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. This version has been corrected.