All children should learn to swim at an early age. However, there is no consensus as to the optimum age to start; guidelines vary from six months, and sometimes even younger, to four years. In addition, there are health issues to consider regarding placing infants in public pools.
♦ The number of young children taking swimming lessons is steadily increasing. At the same time, the drowning rate for this age group (and for most other age groups) has decreased by about 50% in the past twenty years. However, the two may not be related. The decrease is credited to more adults being better informed about water-related hazards.
♦ Teaching young children to swim doesn’t “drown-proof” them. Infants who swim generally do so only when an adult hovers over them, rarely when they fall into the water unseen. Moreover, their ability to swim may give some parents a false sense of security, making parents less vigilant around water, perhaps increasing the risk of drowning. An adult caretaker should be within an arm’s reach at all times.
♦ Lessons for infants younger than one year of age are controversial. Some swimming courses have websites with films showing infants performing amazing aquatic stunts with no adult in sight. Some instructors claim that the younger the infants, the greater their affinity for water, a throwback to their existence in the womb. “What your child will learn depends on their developmental readiness, but in all cases, at minimum, they will learn to roll onto their backs, float, rest, breathe, and maintain this position until help arrives.” Perhaps some infants will do this, but certainly not all.
♦ Starting swimming lessons should not be determined by age alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics has lowered their recommended minimum age from four years to one year of age. This is based on a small study that suggests that an infant’s ability to swim may help survival rates, but only slightly. The American Red Cross (ARC) recommends that lessons start at two years of age. Both the ARC and the YMCA have programs for infants age six months and older to “teach infants and parents basic aquatic safety and help infants and parents grow closer together”.
♦ One year-olds do not learn to swim in less time than three or four year-olds. Nor do they necessarily become more proficient later on. Early swimming lessons do not increase intelligence, concentration or alertness, as some programs claim. Early lessons should emphasize water safety for parents and water-related fun for both parents and infants/toddlers. (Parents rarely make good instructors for their own children.)
♦ Flotation devices save lives, when used correctly. Numerous types are available. Check the web. Many are designed to keep young children’s heads above the water. Devices should fit properly and comfortably; some are weight-specific. Toddlers should wear floatation devices when they play near the water, not only when they are in the water or on boats. Many young children who drown or near-drown were not supposed to be in the water. Note that many air-filled swimming aids and air mattresses are toys, not flotation devices These toys may deflate suddenly, or the child may slip off them.
♦ Infants should go swimming even if they do not swim. Blame the English language for the confusion. “Swimming” is synonymous with “bathing in a body of water.” Do place infants in water to acquaint them with it, helping them to overcome fears and preparing them for lessons. Start with sprinklers. Choose lukewarm pools. Let them splash with their hands. Don’t rush progress. Stay within arm’s reach. Infants can go under in split seconds, without making a sound.
♦ Skip swimming when your child is ill. And hope other parents do the same. Even in optimally maintained pools, children who place their heads in the water become ill more often than children who do not. They swallow water. The more crowded and the smaller the pool, the more likely illness will occur. Some swimming facilities insist that infants wear special swim diapers, designed to keep stool from leaking out. However, at best, swim diapers slow leakage.
♦ Miscellaneous. Strong chlorine odors are not signs of well-chlorinated pools. On the contrary, it may mean chlorination or ventilation systems are malfunctioning. Infants can drown or near drown in six inches of water, in bathtubs, fishponds, ditches, fountains, rain barrels, watering cans and bucket used to wash cars. Empty containers of water when not in use.