Basic swimming knowledge and life-saving techniques are both important for young children. Nevertheless, these skills are learned at different ages. No matter when your baby starts, swimming should always be a gentle journey.
by Christina DiMartino
There is a profound difference for your child between learning to swim and learning life-saving water techniques. Both are important, but children accomplish these skills at different ages.
Some childhood water experts believe that babies as young as 6 months can learn self-rescue techniques. Lessons in formal swimming strokes such as the front crawl, however, may need to wait until the child is at least 4 years old.
One of the advocates of early self-rescue teaching is Harvey Barnett, Ph.D., who founded Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) in 1966 and continues to direct it. ISR uses both verbal and non-verbal cues to teach children life-saving techniques starting at 6 months.
“Even though your child might not communicate verbally yet, he can learn to self-rescue,” says Dr. Barnett. “Remember, he may not be able to talk, but he has learned to crawl, walk and run. These are the only skills he needs to find himself in water danger.”
ISR goes beyond traditional swim instruction by teaching children self-rescue techniques to survive in the water. Barnett says every child learns at her own pace. Children may begin lessons starting from 6 months of age.Babies 6 to 12 months learn to…
There are instructors trained in ISR techniques throughout the U.S. You can learn more about the program and check for local instructors on the ISR website.
SwimAmerica, a national learn-to-swim program operated by the American Swimming Coaches Association, concurs that life-saving lessons should begin as soon as 6 months of age.
The organization favors group swim lessons for children who are ready to learn. Small groups of five children or fewer provide instruction, practice, and the opportunity to watch other children perform the skill. However, not all children learn best in group lessons. You must take into account your child’s temperament and learning style.
In either setting, SwimAmerica instructors stress the importance of teaching children to surface when underwater, roll over, float, and yell for help. This response saves lives because it buys time for the caregiver to realize that the child is in danger.
SwimAmerica offers programs in more than 400 sites across the country. You can find locations on their website.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) defines “swimming skills” as “the ability to perform standard swimming strokes.” Their official policy statement recommends that you decide whether to enroll a child in swimming lessons “based on the child’s frequency of exposure to water, emotional development, physical abilities, and certain health concerns related to pool water infections and pool chemicals.”
Up until this past May, the AAP recommended that parents wait until children had the neuromuscular development necessary to accomplish formal swimming strokes like the front crawl. But new evidence has been found that shows swimming lessons for children ages 1 to 4 could help them be less prone to drowning. The AAP is now more open to lessons for children ages 1 to 3.
Water fun and safety programs
Until a child starts formal swimming lessons, consider a parent-child program that focuses on water games, swimming-readiness skills, and safety in and around the pool. The American Red Cross and YMCA have developed many such programs. Along with age, take your child’s experience and comfort with water into account before you sign up for any class.
Rob and Kathy McKay, owners of Lifestyle Swim School at the Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, have created a natural, child-friendly, and educationally sound aquatic teaching curriculum for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children.They’ve shared what they’ve learned through their award-winning DVD series, Diaper Dolphins, and their book, Learn to Swim: Step by Step Water Confidence and Safety Skills for Babies and Young Children
Rob McKay cautions parents to look carefully into any swimming program they are considering for their babies. “Survival back float swim lessons can result in devastating consequences on the well being of the child,” he says. “Also, there are many brutal methods that force children screaming underwater.”
When you are looking for a water program for your child, “seek out programs which teach a gentle, gradual child-paced, child/family-friendly curriculum, following safe teaching guidelines,” McKay emphasizes. No matter when your baby starts, this aspect of child parenting should always be a gentle journey.
Safety above all
No matter how much you would like your child to learn to swim, and even if your baby or toddler has completed a self-rescue program, water safety is the most important factor to keep in mind at all times when your child is near the water.
“Regardless of an infant’s or toddler’s apparent level of comfort and competence,” says the AAP, “constant close supervision by an adult is necessary to prevent drowning and near-drowning.”
How close? The AAP stresses “touch supervision”—that whenever infants and toddlers are in or around water, an adult should be within an arm’s length.
● Never leave a child alone in or near a pool, even for a moment. An adult who can swim and who knows CPR should supervise children at all times.
● Do not use air-filled swimming aids, such as water wings, as a substitute for approved life vests.
● Never allow young children and those who cannot swim to use inflatable pool toys or mattresses as flotation devices in the water.
● Allow children to dive into water only when permitted by an adult who knows the depth of the water and has checked for underwater objects. Do not allow diving through inner tubes and other pool toys. Never allow diving into above-ground pools.
Christina DiMartino has been a freelance and assignment writer since 1985. She is a researcher, interviewer, writer, editor, and manuscript collaborator with a repertoire of clients from around the world.Photos courtesy of Rob and Kathy McKay, Lifestyle Swim School