No matter what time of year it is, there is nothing cuter than a baby in a tiny bathing suit splashing around in the water. Swimming pools, beaches, and other bodies of water are always refreshing but you need to make sure that your children are competent swimmers before you grab the beach towels.
Some parents swear that their kids are natural “water babies,” but investing in proper swimming lessons is necessary due to the high risk of drowning. You may wonder how young is too young for swim lessons? And what can you do to prevent drowning?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the single leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1 to 4. Other organizations have similar findings, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Physician Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, and lead author of the AAP’s policy statement Prevention of Drowning, said, “Many of these deaths occur when children are not expected to be swimming or when they have unanticipated access to water. Toddlers are naturally curious; that’s why we must implement other strategies, such as pool fencing and door locks.”
We as parents should look at swimming lessons to be just as important a tool in preventing accidents as a pool fence. This is especially important for new parents, who may not know to be vigilant at bath time or if there is a bucket of water in the backyard.
The AAP advises new parents to always be attentive during baths and to quickly empty any buckets or wading pools that their children may have access to at any time. A child can drown in as little as one inch of water in as few as 1-2 minutes, so even toilet lids need a lock on them.
The best way to prevent a child from drowning is to not only invest in swim lessons but also to provide many layers of protection before they even get near the water. Appropriately secured pool fences, locks, and gates are the first step.
The second step is to ALWAYS have adult supervision when kids are near the water. Designate an adult as the water watcher on duty, and rotate watchers to prevent fatigue. These adults should not let anything distract them from watching the children as they play in a pool or lake – this is the second layer of protection.
The third layer, of course, are the actual swim lessons that provide the needed education and practice for children of any age to know how to stay safer while in the water.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed formal swimming lessons were associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning for 1- to 4-year-old children.
Another misconception about drowning is the so-called “dry drowning” phenomenon. Misinformation from social media and high-profile deaths has made this a much talked about subject, but AAP and many physicians insist that “dry drowning” is a misnomer.
A 2018 article written by two ER doctors definitively stated that there is no such thing as dry drowning. ER physicians Rick Pescatore and Seth C. Hawkins explain that the medical use of the word ‘drowning’ innately implies submersion in a liquid. Drowning has only three subtypes, according to their article: drowning without injury, drowning with injury, and fatal drowning.
Even the official definition of drowning established at the 2002 World Congress on Drowning said that it is “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion or immersion in liquid.” In addition, nearly every major medical organization has spoken out against misleading terms such as “dry,” “near,” or “secondary” drowning. “Dry drowning” is just not possible in the medical sense.
What does actual drowning look like? In-water drowning of any kind is usually silent – not at all like the movies and TV portray it with loud cries for help and a lot of splashing around. When a person is drowning, the body is deprived of oxygen, which can damage organs, especially the lungs and brain.
The extent of the damage caused is dependent on how long you are underwater without oxygen. Drowning occurs when water enters your lungs or when the vocal cords go into severe spasm (thus, the silence). If the vocal cords are spasming, it can prevent water from reaching the lungs, but it also prevents breathing as well. Either way, fatal or near-fatal drowning rarely looks like what you think it might. This is why parents need to be hypervigilant when their little ones are near the water.
Swim Lessons: How Young is Too Young?
The AAP and the scientific research have shown that swim lessons should be started when children are around the age of 12 months. Pediatrician and coauthor of the AAP policy statement Linda Quan agrees. “Research has found that swim lessons are beneficial for children starting around age 1, and may lower drowning rates,” she said.
You can introduce your child to water around 2 months of age. This gets them familiar with the water and how much fun it can be. Some swim instructors like myself even advocate for teaching children to swim before they can walk.
When looking for the appropriate swim lessons for your child, there are a few things that you want and should expect from the program:
- Because children develop at different rates, keep your child’s emotional maturity, physical and developmental abilities and limitations, and comfort level in the water in mind. Every child will be ready at a different age – there is no hard and fast rule for them to begin swimming lessons.
- With a young child or toddler, the best swim classes are the ones that include parents or caregivers. This is a good way to introduce good water safety habits and model the appropriate behavior when around water.
- The best swim classes are those that emphasize water survival competency skills, not just how-to-swim methods. Learning proper swim stroke techniques is important and can be done as children get older, but at younger ages it is more important to learn how to be safer around the water by never entering without an adult or how to turn around to get back to the wall or shore if they fall in.
- This may be obvious but select a program that has experienced, qualified instructors, not just bored teenagers working a summer job. The instructors should be trained, certified, and provide age-appropriate instruction to the children. There should also be water watchers on duty at all times, which can include caregivers, parents or CPR- and First Aid-certified lifeguards.
These are just a few tips for finding a great swim lesson program. Local swim schools should be passionate about swim education and keeping kids safer in the water. Drowning is 100% preventable with the proper instruction.