Summer is coming! And, there are many swimming programs available for children — including programs popping up for infants. The question is how soon can babies start? Do the benefits of teaching babies water safety outweigh the cons? There’s not a wealth of data about water readiness for infants, but here’s what we do know.
National drowning rates have dropped considerably since the 1980s, cutting the death rates for children aged 14 years old and younger by more than half, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents still need to be vigilant. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide and the highest number of drownings affected children 1 to 4-years-old, followed by 5 to 9, as reported by StopDrowningNow.org.
In an effort to offset this, swim classes are now being offered to babies 12 to 36 months old, and in some cases the babies are even younger. Infant classes, such as Infant Baby Rescue, teach babies how to flip over into a floating position in order to have a greater chance of surviving an accidental fall into the water. Babies learn how not to fear water in their eyes and what movements prevent sinking. The hope is that these techniques will keep the baby alive long enough to be saved.
Some parents chimed in with strong reactions to the concept, such as calling it barbaric or suggesting it’s dangerous to be giving parents a false sense of safety because swimming lessons are not a prevention against drowning.
“It’s unsettling until you realize and see how it could save your child’s life,” says Theresa Anastasia, a mother of one. “Once they start crawling it’s game on. What if they slipped away near a pool and fell in?” It is possible for children to drown in as little as 20 to 60 seconds and in as little as an inch of water.
To be on the safe side, most guardians typically don’t put their babies into chlorinated pools or lakes until six months old due to their delicate immune systems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has not come out in support of infant swim lessons for babies under 12 months stating that there is no evidence it prevents drowning. Yet, one study published in the JAMA Pediatrics concluded that participation in formal swimming lessons could potentially reduce the risk of drowning by 88% in the 1 to 4-year-old-age category.
“We just started Infant Safety Rescue lessons last week at 8.5 months old, and have already seen progress in breaking habits (reactions) like tipping the head back and grabbing at the feet which would prevent floating. It’s been tough to watch my son in distress but at the same time I find peace in knowing this could save his life one day,” says Anastasia, who has a pool at her house. “It’s not a party trick. It’s a life saving tool and I have no regrets.”
Anastasia continues, saying that her swim instructors in the infant class she took monitored the baby throughout the lesson—checking blood flow, massaging the back, promoting burps, and so forth.
Strict pool fencing laws in California are another reason for the decline in local drowning deaths, with lawmakers adding features to 1990s legislation and again in 2007. Now the California Pool Safety Act of 2018, continues to add more safety features for all new construction.
These laws advocating for protective fencing and pool safety measures help because a majority of the children under age 5 who drowned were not expected to be at the pool at the time of the incident. Children are most likely to drown in a swimming pool and for infants under one year old, it’s most likely to be a pool at their house. Family gatherings are a particular danger for drownings so parents should be extra careful during those times.
Other safety measures for young children are having them wear portable flotation devices (aka life jackets) and keeping them no more than an arm’s length away from a guardian when near water. Babies can use life jackets if they are at least 20 pounds and capable of sitting up on their own. Another safety tip is to use diapers designed for use in water because they are not as heavy as regular diapers and so it’s less likely for a child to lose his/her footing in a wading pool. Also, it’s important to make sure children do not have access to crawl outside through a doggie door, especially if there is a pool on the premises.
In summary, parents choosing infant swimming lessons should remember they are not a safety guard that protects children from drowning, nor a substitute for keeping an eye on babies at all times. However, there are benefits to introducing young babies to water, such as learning to float and building water confidence, as well as for parents and guardians to learn some of the tips and tricks of water safety for infants themselves.
An original version of this article was published in Venice Living Magazine.