Most parents of young children are anxious about water safety - and for good reason! For children under the age of 5, drowning remains the second leading cause of accidental death. Many parents believe that infant swimming classes will safeguard their preschooler against the tragedy of accidental drowning. Over the past decade, numerous infant and toddler swimming programs have emerged that promote a variety of benefits, including "waterproofing" infants and teaching small children water safety and swimming skills. While toddlers can learn to propel themselves in the water, parents cannot expect young children to learn the rules of water safety or to know how to act in an emergency. Furthermore, no one can be "waterproofed". Toddlers can easily drown even if they have had swimming lessons, and parents can be lulled into a false sense of security believing that their infant or young child can "swim" a few strokes.
Children not toilet trained may spread infection in pools, particularly the intestinal parasite Giardia. Even high chloride levels cannot effectively clean pools contaminated by fecal material. Youngsters in swimming programs that encourage head submersion risk water intoxication, a medical condition caused by swallowing large quantities of water causing brain swelling with seizures and other severe complications. Although children may appear well while swimming, water intoxication can develop later and can be deadly. Furthermore, the smaller the child, the less fluid it takes to produce this condition.
Recognizing the popularity of swim programs for children and the desire of parents to make their children as safe around water as possible, the AAP recommends that programs for children under 3 years of age require a one-to-one participation of a parent or another adult. Organized group swimming instruction should be reserved for children more than 3 years of age. To reduce medical risks, the program should follow the national YMCA or American Red Cross guidelines, which include prohibiting total submersion, maintaining proper water temperature (86 degrees and above), and providing measures to control stool contamination. Parents should avoid programs that advertise "waterproofing" children or making them "water safe" because neither is humanly possible. The best programs promote water enrichment and stress parent participation and risk awareness.
Children age 3 and older may be ready for lessons, depending on their developmental readiness and comfort level in the water. There are many activities parents can do at home to help a young child learn to love the water:
Parents considering lessons for their young child should remember that motor skill development at this age is unpredictable, so avoid the "hurried child" syndrome. Not every youngster will like the water at first, and if a child doesn't want to learn to swim, they won't. Any pressure from parents, beyond providing the exposure to swimming, will ruin the fun and cause the youngster to become anxious and resistant.
If small group classes fail, try some private lessons, using an instructor who provides a "tender loving care" approach to water. And if a parent is a non-swimmer or fearful of the water, ask another adult to go into the water to help the child.
One final word. Most swimming instructors agree that flotation devices are a good way to provide support for new swimmers. While these aids allow youngsters to relax, their use should be limited. Children may become too dependent on their support, and that can slow their progress. What is more important, flotation devices often give children (and their parents) a false sense of security in their youngster's ability would could quickly place a child in a drowning situation.
Parents should remember that the water is a new element that their child must slowly get used to with supervision. When encouraged, but not pushed, all children will learn to swim when the time and place are right.