Four-thousand infants and children drown each year, twelve-thousand won’t die but will sustain brain injury, and, what’s worse, more than half of all parents in the country don’t consider drowning as a threat to their children.
With drowning as the leading cause of death in children one to four years of age, parents must do everything possible to prevent the tragedy from striking home. While prevention of drowning is not entirely possible, there are special precautions to be taken to preserve the life of a child in the water. One such precaution is the increasingly popular infant swimming lesson. Experts have argued the infant swimming movement in recent years, and there seems to be no forthright end to its debate.
When thinking about whether or not to enroll your child in an infant swimming course, there is a lot to be considered—which is why we’ve put together a complete resource to help you determine whether or not infant swimming lessons are right for your child.
What is infant swimming?
Infant swimming lessons are designed to train children to survive in the event that they accidentally fall into the water unattended. Today, the most well-known infant swimming program is Infant Swimming Resource (ISR). ISR survival training programs use certified instructors to augment the reflexive swimming techniques of infants and children. Through these programs, infants and children are trained to maintain a back float position while adopting a breathing pattern, while children over the age of one will also learn how to swim to safety. Students may even learn procedures in their clothing to simulate an actual fall into the water. ISR lessons run five days a week for only ten minutes each day. According to ISR, your child should be able to float after four to five weeks.
Experts say infancy is the prime time to teach children how to keep afloat and swim in the water, because they possess reflexes in water that older children and adults do not. These reflexes keep their eyes open under water and most times prevent them from swallowing water. At the same time, their experience in the womb makes water more familiar, and the air between their cells gives them more buoyancy.
When is my child old enough for lessons?
This question may be the most debated in the infant swimming movement. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and ISR don’t agree on an acceptable age for infant swimming lessons, but the gap is closing. The AAP recently changed its policy to consider infant swimming appropriate for children as young as one year old, when in previous years, the policy stated four years old was the proper age. The ISR, however, recommends these swimming lessons as soon as your child begins crawling and will offer training to infants as young as six months old. They believe starting young is key.
Why the discrepancy? In years past, there has been no evidence that infant swimming lessons reduce the risk of drowning in children, but with the surface of multiple studies citing the benefits of early swim training, the pediatric academy altered their policy. But while their policy is more accepting, they don’t agree that these survival lessons are for every infant. The organization stresses that parents play the deciding role in whether or not their children enroll in swim lessons, and that the decision should be based on the infant’s frequency of water exposure, emotional and physical development and health concerns.
Is infant swimming safe?
The safety of infant swimmers is dependent on a variety of factors. The health and development of your child, as well as their physical and cognitive ability will make a difference in their safety in the water, but the training strategy is just as important. Most infant swimming programs adhere to rigorous safety measures and training protocol to ensure the safety of your baby. For example, the ISR prides itself in practicing the safest means of swim training. They even go as far as maintaining your child’s medical and developmental history in creating a program and tracking progress. In addition, their trainers undergo intensive training and yearly recertification programs. To be sure you trust the safety measures of an infant swimming program, we recommend investigating their protocol or speaking with a trained instructor. Word of mouth is also an excellent way to judge the safety of a swim class. The experiences of other parents are likely to be most valuable.
Parents, industry experts and researchers alike cite a host of advantages of infant swimming courses, from developmental benefits to actual instances of drowning prevention post-training. Getting babies and toddlers in the water can improve cognitive skills, emotional skills and social skills, as well as motor functioning, gripping and balance skills. For example, a study of 38 four-year-olds in Iceland reported that those who participated in swimming lessons as infants performed better on tests of gripping, reaching and balance compared to children who had not participated in the lessons. The 19 four-year-olds who had completed formal swimming lessons two hours a week for four months as babies scored higher on tests of prehension (grasping) and static balance.
The most important advantage, however, is that infant swimming lessons save lives. There is new evidence, acknowledged by the AAP, that children ages one to four may be less likely to drown after formal swimming instruction. These programs train children to respond to immersion in water the same way they’ve been instructed in lessons. By floating on their back and utilizing practiced breathing methods, children and infants who accidentally fall into the water are able to buy time until rescued. These methods work in large swimming pools, inflatable pools and even drainage ditches, and the ISR reports that they have not had a single child enrolled in their program drown to date. Want more survival stories? Read them here.
While infant swimming courses provide a specialized opportunity for children to gain life-saving swimming skills, there are debatable downsides to the program.
One general concern, specifically among pediatricians, is that infant swimming lessons provide parents and children with a false sense of security around the water. These experts caution that if parents believe their child is comfortable in the water they will be more likely to leave them unattended. If your child was trained in water survival, would you be more likely to read that magazine poolside, run inside to answer the phone or leave the water to fix lunch? In only a few seconds, a child can slip into the water without warning. If that phone call you answered took longer than expected, infant survival training may not be enough to preserve a life.
Another worry pediatricians and parents have about infant swim training is that, even after lessons, children lack a sense of judgment around the water. While infants and children may have the skills to float in the water, they do not have the sense to keep away from it. Infant swimming lessons do not teach children to behave properly around the water or to avoid dangerous situations. Even if that was the case, children ages six months to a year, or older, are not cognitively able to follow pool rules.
Finally, the concern that plagues parents most. Not all children, especially younger children, will enjoy infant swimming lessons. They will cry, they will be uncomfortable, and they may struggle with the experience. Some children take to the water immediately, but some develop a fear of the water. Infant swim training is an intensive process designed to save lives—whether your child uses the training as a survival skill only or learns to love swimming is uncertain. It’s important to understand that these lessons aren’t going to turn your child into a fish. They may have the opposite effect. But it the process, your child will have invaluable, life-saving skills if ever they fall into the water.
Parental measures of precaution
Drowning is not entirely preventable. Everyone is at risk to drown—adults, children, seasoned swimmers and beginners alike. Infant swimming lessons may be the right investment in protecting the life of your child, but they won’t do any good if you don’t take extra precautions as a parent. Supplement your swimming program with preventative measures, and your child will have a significantly lesser risk of drowning.
- Install climb-proof fences around swimming pools
- Install an alarm on every pool gate
- Supervise children at all times around pools, bathtubs, toilets, ditches, lakes, etc.
- Assign a water watcher when your child is swimming with others
- Never assume someone else is watching your child
- Never leave a child unattended near water—even to read a book or answer a phone call
- Empty inflatable pools when you know your children won’t be using them
- Go over a list of water rules with your child when they are old enough to follow them
These are just several of many precautions you can take as a parent to keep your child from enjoying the water safely. Practice these preventative measures and consider the value of infant swimming lessons. Remember, it is dependent on you and the health and ability of your child in making the decision to enroll your child in infant swimming lessons.