Testing The Waters

A new study says swimming lessons for very young children can reduce the risk of drowning, perhaps easing some long-standing concerns

April 13, 2009|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Christopher Ward is only 3 years old, but already he is a swimmer, making his way the entire length of the pool at the Ellicott City Y and then, after a little break, back again.

His mother, Colley, signed him up for his first lesson when he was 6 months old. As he got older, she knew she had to keep enrolling him in classes. "My child's a daredevil. When he was 2, he'd just jump in, no matter how many times I said, 'Don't do that,' " she said.

He would have to learn how to swim or he could hurt himself or worse. "Now I feel more confident with him in the water," she said. "I know he has basic skills at this point."

A National Institutes of Health study published in last month's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that providing very young children - like Christopher - with swimming lessons appears to significantly reduce their risk of drowning.

The study is the first of its kind, and researchers hope the findings will ease concerns of pediatricians. Many have long felt that giving swimming lessons to children ages 1 to 4 might actually increase their drowning risk by making parents less vigilant when children are near the water and by decreasing children's natural - and healthy - fear of the water.

Still, concluded the authors: "Parents and caregivers who choose to enroll their children in swimming lessons should be cautioned that this alone will not prevent drowning and that even the most proficient swimmers can drown."

Parents often ask Dr. Robert Ancona, chief of pediatrics at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, whether their infants and toddlers should take swimming lessons. "Overall, we kind of advise against it," he said.

He worries that everyone involved - parents, caregivers, the children themselves - may develop a false sense of security from formal lessons. Parents may pay less attention to their little ones around the water. Children might wander off alone to a pool, believing they know how to swim. The results can be deadly.

Ancona says that while swimming lessons might be fun, the skills taught are "not to be relied on" as a way to prevent drowning, especially in children younger than 4.

"You're getting them used to the water, they may learn to float, but they're not going to learn the Australian crawl," he said. "That stuff is all OK, but the parent needs to understand they're not really swimming lessons. They're entertainment."

The American Academy of Pediatrics has been divided on the issue of swimming lessons for very young children. A 2000 policy on swimming states that "generally children are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday," while a later policy on drowning prevention says that "ultimately, the decision of when to start a child in swimming lessons must be individualized."

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death of infants and young children in the United States, with roughly 4,000 dying each year. Many more are badly injured.

Harvey A. Barnett, who has been preaching about the benefits of swimming lessons for decades, says what is missing in the research is any explanation of which types of swimming lessons save the most lives.

Barnett is the founder of a Florida company called Infant Swimming Resource, which teaches a type of lessons that can be characterized more as a survival skill than as a fun 30 minutes getting acquainted with the water.

The goal of his program, which is taught at various pools across the country, is to teach a baby, as young as 6 months old, how to roll over on her back and float as soon as she has been put into the pool.

Once the infant is proficient at that, she is put in the pool with her clothes on to simulate an actual dangerous situation. That way, she can learn to roll over and float in soggy, heavy clothing, because a child who accidentally falls into a pool will likely be fully dressed and will need to learn how to roll over with that impediment.

Barnett said that babies who are exposed to more traditional swimming lessons, during which they may be held by their mothers and taught to kick their legs and maybe blow a few bubbles, will associate the water with love, nurturing and a "play environment."

"They have no skills," Barnett said. "I would think that child has a higher risk of drowning than a child who has been exposed to a program that has taught them to roll onto their backs."

Supervision, though, remains the key to keeping young children safe around the water, most experts agree. And it's the No. 1 rule in Anna Banyas' Ellicott City backyard.

"I have a 6-year-old," Banyas said. "She swims very well but she doesn't go in the pool by herself."

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