Swim lessons for toddlers get doctors' approval

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

CHICAGO -- The nation's largest pediatricians group is relaxing its stance against swimming lessons for children younger than 4.

In the past, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said swim classes might give toddlers and parents a false sense of security. Now the group says it's fine to enroll children as young as 1.

A few small studies suggest toddlers may be less likely to drown if they've had swim lessons. The group isn't recommending lessons for every young child. Some parents may thinks their little ones aren't ready and that's OK.

For Cristy Welker, the recommendation reinforces something she's believed for years. Welker, a nurse and an infant swimming resource instructor, teaches children as young as 6 months old how to survive in the water.

"Most children have no innate fear of water, which is why it can be so hazardous," Welker said in an e-mail interview.

She said that ISR is not a swimming class but a "drowning prevention class."

In a one-on-one lesson, Welker teaches children "self-rescue" skills like survival floating, how to rotate to a face-up position, a swim-float-swim sequence and general water safety.

"As adults, we can distinguish the consequences from water, but a child does not," she said. "Parents must provide children with the final layer of protection in the unfortunate event that supervision lapses, even momentarily, and a child ends up in the water alone."

The updated AAP policy, released online last week by the journal Pediatrics, also recommends fences around all pools, even popular inflatable ones. Children can drown by leaning over the soft sides and falling in.

And the group warns that children can drown when their hair or hands get sucked into the drains of pools or spas without drain covers or proper filter-pump equipment.

"It's just one more thing you can do to try to help them survive if they fall in," said Lauren Jones-Mauer, who enrolled her daughter Grayson in ISR at 14 months old.

Grayson learned to float and can now hold her breath and swim underwater. She is taking a two-week refresher course now. Jones-Mauer said Grayson swims between her and husband Jeff for about eight feet, which gives her the peace of mind that if something did happen when an adult wasn't near, "at least she could get to the edge of the pool and scream for help."

The rate of childhood drowning deaths has declined in recent years. About 1,100 U.S. children drowned in 2006.

Parents know they should be vigilant while children swim, but trouble can occur in an instant of inattention, said Dr. Jeffrey Weiss of Phoenix Children's Hospital and lead author of the policy.

"It's not a lack of supervision, it's a lapse of supervision," Weiss said.

Parents should choose classes that emphasize water safety and require a parent or other adult to be in the water with the child, said Connie Harvey, who heads aquatics development for the American Red Cross and wasn't involved in the doctors' policy update.

Classes should have at least one instructor for every 10 students, she said.

Features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.

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