Ages & Stages 0-5: Should Infants Swim?

When my now-22-year-old daughter was an infant, I took her to the YWCA for swim lessons at 6 months of age. I had always been afraid of water and our new home had a pool in the backyard. I was determined that she would never be uncomfortable around water. Today, she serves with the U.S. Coast Guard and confidently jumps off the side of a Coast Guard cutter into the ocean. Did I do the right thing? To me, it appears I did. But some early swim experts say babies should not be pushed underwater at an early age.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages swim lessons for children under 4 years of age for two reasons:
1. They feel infant swimming lessons give a false sense of safety regarding the risk of drowning.
2. A study released last year found that trichloramine — a chlorine byproduct that gives indoor pools their distinctive “chlorine” smell — is one of the most concentrated air pollutants to which children of developed countries are regularly exposed. The study asserts that this pollutant, along with other aerosolized chlorine-based oxidants, can be associated with airway changes that predispose children to asthma and recurrent bronchitis later in childhood. This study was done in an indoor pool environment, which is where most swim lessons take place.

Charlotte Parent magazine recently asked several local swim programs to explain their philosophy on offering infant programs.

1. Little Otter Swim Academy, John Kirk, Owner,
At Little Otter Swim School, our classes begin at 6 months. Our teachers are extensively trained which equates to quality, safe instruction. Our class format involves personalized instruction for part of the class and provides for gentle, child-paced progression.
The AAP is concerned that parents will become complacent when a child is taught the safety skills of swimming. We agree and believe that complacency with any child safety measure is dangerous. We teach children to swim to become safer. There is no substitute for parental supervision, especially around water. NOT knowing how to swim has never saved a child from drowning.

2. YMCA of Greater Charlotte, Laura Ferguson, Director of Program Experience,
The youngest age for participation in the YMCA Parent/Child Aquatic Program is 6 months. The ability for a child to maintain control of his/her head is a key indication of an infant’s readiness for participation in an aquatic program. The YMCA Parent/Child Aquatic Program requires parents to accompany children under 3 years old in the water so the parent can monitor the child’s behavior and learn how to best facilitate the learning of their child. YMCA programs reinforce the significance of supervising children around water as the most important action to help keep children safe. For children 6 months to 36 months, the Parent/Child Aquatic Program focuses on the adjustment to the water environment, exploration and enjoyment by both parent and child. Children are exposed to games that use basic movements in the water such as kicking, arm strokes and breath control, as well as songs.

3. Jayme Kreitmann, ISR (Infant Swim Research), Instructor,
All ISR lessons are one-on-one with a highly trained and certified instructor. Students aged 12 months to 6 years learn proper breath control, basic swimming skills and self rescue skills to survive an aquatic accident. Children 6-11 months old learn to roll from a face-down position in the water to a comfortable back float. Students attend short private lessons five days a week over the course of four to six weeks to accomplish these skills. Extensive and individualized parent education is provided. Students are monitored and lessons are adjusted continuously to maximize the lesson experience.

Re: AAP statements of false sense for safety: Drowning now ranks as the No. 1 cause of accidental death of children under the age of 4 in North Carolina. ISR parents are highly educated that no one is EVER drown-proofed by any lessons. Parents are taught that constant eyes-on supervision within arms reach is the only sure way to prevent drowning. ISR-taught self-rescue skills are the last line of defense against an aquatic tragedy. Since it is an accident that the child got to the water unattended, it’s imperative to give children skills to save themselves.

Dr. Harvey Barnett, Founder of ISR, responds to the chlorine issue:
” … overall, parents must be aware of their child’s sensitivity to chlorine and the impact of chlorine on respiratory health. Because we continually monitor and evaluate our program’s safety, we have collected data on each of our 160,000 students since 1966, including follow-up reports and input from medical experts. There has been no observation of an ill effect or respiratory problem among any of ISR’s current or former students.

4. Gaston County Family YMCA Metro, Rebecca Smith, Financial Development and Marketing Director,
“Swimming lessons equip children with essential skills to be safe in and around water,” says Deborah Cauthen, Aquatics Director for the Gaston County Family YMCA. “In addition to building character and self-confidence, children learn about leadership, safety and rescue skills, and water activities. These important survival skills allow parents and children to enjoy a lifetime of both fun and healthy activity at pools, beaches and water parks.” At the Gaston County Family YMCA, we offer Parent/ Child Swim Lessons starting at 6 months of age. Our instructors use movement exploration principles which allow children to move in the water effectively and efficiently at their own pace and in their own way. Children are never forced or asked to move past their comfort level. Emphasis is placed on safe entry and exit from the water, as well as general water safety lessons.

5. Nomad Aquatics, Myra Billings, Co-Owner,
We offer a progressive swim school beginning at 6 months. Tadpole I is our class for children 6 months to 18 months and it helps build swimming readiness by emphasizing fun in the water with songs, games and colorful equipment. Parents and children participate in guided sessions that help children learn elementary skills, including water orientation and entry, floating skills, breath control, gentle underwater submersion and opening eyes underwater. Tadpoles II is for the beginning toddler between the ages of 19 and 36 months and their parent. Songs and games are incorporated and parents are taught how to correctly hold their toddler to promote relaxed and comfortable movements through the water. Overcoming fear of the water, gaining breath control and relaxed gliding are the main goals. Our theory here at NOMAD is to teach all children to swim in order to survive and then if they have fun doing it, that’s an even bigger “plus.”