Jump in?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com Iliana Arevello, 11, reacted as four-year-old Sarah Mickinley Davis climbed on her after their swimming period last June at the Gator summer league. The Gator swim team does not accept children under 4.

Gators swim coach Steve Franklin has seen 3 year olds who could compete in every event at a swim meet, but he still doesn't think it's a good idea.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday. They recommend any pool time be supervised and serve only to introduce the child to water.

Franklin, among others in the area, said he recommends getting children in the pool at 6 months, but Gators won't accept them until their fourth birthday because of the necessary one-on-one supervision a child younger than 4 needs, Franklin said.

"Under 4 they're too young to understand what's going on," he said.

Some say that the academy's recommendation is conservative and that children are less apt to fear water when they start lessons younger.

"We actually have a course that you can be as young as 6 months to take," said Patrick Watson, Cape Girardeau's aquatics supervisor. But those classes are attended by a specialist. The classes for 18-month-olds are also popular.

"Parents have to be in the water with the kids. They're hanging on to them the whole time," he said.

The sooner you get a child in the pool, "they'll become more comfortable with water," Watson said.

"It's OK to do," said Dr. Scott Keller with Cape Girardeau Physicians Associates, "but it does not give them any protection against drowning. That's the main thing you're worried about."

Drowning was the leading cause of accidental death among children 1 to 4 years old in 2005, the latest statistics available, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning accounted for nearly 30 percent of 1,664 accidental deaths.

"Some kids will lure you into a false sense of security because they will really take to the water," Keller said. "There's still that risk of drowning."

Children younger than 4 represent up to 45 percent of business at private swimming schools. They offer classes for children as young as 3 months, with a parent and instructor in the water with the child. Children as young as 2 years start lessons with just an instructor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation, written in 2000 and reaffirmed in 2004, also advises that aquatic programs for infants and toddlers have not been shown to decrease the risk of drowning. Parents should not believe their child is safe from drowning after participating in such programs.

Dr. Marilyn J. Bull, who led the committee that wrote the recommendation, said research shows children are not capable of understanding the dangers of swimming.

Keller agreed, saying that children younger than 4 or 5 aren't neurologically ready for laps on their own.

Kim Patrick, coordinator for Safe Kids Inland Empire, based at Loma Linda University Children's Hospital, disagreed with the academy's recommendation. She said because children develop at different speeds, they could start swimming lessons at different times.

Patrick is also a National Drowning Prevention Alliance board member. In 1999, her 2 1/2-year-old son, Brandon, drowned in a backyard pool. Brandon had not had swimming lessons. Patrick is not sure if he would have reached the side of the pool if he had taken lessons.

She said anecdotal evidence suggests children are less likely to drown when they learn to swim at a younger age, but evidence-based research is needed.

Patrick said an alliance research committee hopes to work with the American Academy of Pediatrics and other drowning experts to do that research.

Scripps Howard News Service reporter Sean Nealon contributed to this report.

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