Water-babies and Preschool
Swimming with young children and babies is an exceptional experience for parents and children. The aim of swimming lessons for babies and young children should be to help both parents and children become comfortable in the water and to begin to develop movement and safety skills. All skill development should be progressive, age appropriate and consider the child's physical and emotional development.
The benefits that swimming lessons offer infants and young children is primarily motor skill development; it is during the preschool years that this development is most rapid; [i] and to get an early start on enjoying physical activity. A frequent question parents ask is; at what age should they start? Parents wonder if swim lesson for infants/young children will put their child at risk and do they even work?
In Canada, drowning remains the number one cause of unintentional injury and death among children 1-4 years of age, and the second leading cause of preventable death for children under 10 years of age. [ii] The Canadian Pediatric Society states that hospitalization rates for non-fatal drownings are highest in the toddler age group and five times greater than children over 5, with the majority of incidences occurring in or around the home.
That being said the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that: Swimming programs for infants and toddlers less than four years of age should not be promoted as being an effective drowning prevention strategy. In its position statement on swimming lesson the Society states that “Children less than four years of age do not have the developmental ability to master water survival skills and swim independently.” [iii]
I am concerned that parents may develop a false sense of security. That when parents choose swim programs for their young children they are buying into the hype that their very young child will be water-proofed. After decades of teaching in a variety of programs, some that are exceptionally good at infant and preschool skill development, I can categorically state that promoting swimming lessons for this age group as a way to drown-proof your children is irresponsible. Children will learn to orientate themselves – not proper strokes as such – but this alone will not make them safe. Nor will they retain these skills if they do not continue to practice them.
Drowning prevention for your children begins at home with your back-yard pool being fully enclosed with fencing (four-sided) and having a self-closing latched gate and at a height that meets or exceeds your local municipal requirements. Children must never be left alone in the pool and you must have safety plans to deal with accidents. Children 5 and under should always be accompanied in the water no matter their abilities as they lack the judgment to keep themselves safe. Floatation devices are never foolproof and your child should be directly supervised at all time even when wearing one. When taking your children to a facility do not rely solely on the lifeguards to ensure your child’s safety. Infants and young children can drown even in shallow water; they should always be “within arm’s reach”.
My concerns might lead you to believe I don’t support infant or preschool swimming lessons; actually nothing can be further from the truth. Programming and teaching parent and tot and preschool swimming lessons has been by far the most rewarding experience in my long career in Aquatics. All of my four children, could “swim” at 3 years old, by that I mean float, swim underwater and on the surface and come up for breaths for about 10 metres as well as support themselves on the surface pretty much endlessly. They all could swim to the bottom in 6ft easily before they were 5 and they all subsequently become lifeguards and instructors.
Tips for fun and success
Always register your children in a program where the staff have been trained as instructors by a recognized agency such as the Lifesaving Society, Red Cross or the YMCA. Ensure that there are qualified lifeguards on duty and that the pool and the change facilities are clean. Look carefully at the program’s outline, expectations and claims and ensure you can watch the program even if you don’t participate.
Before coming to swim lessons bring your child into the pool for a recreational swim time. Swimming pools can be an overwhelming environment for young children, the size and noise of them can be frightening. Try one of the quieter swims and always begin slowly giving your child time to get used to the water, warmer water is better, 85- 90f (29-32c). Hold them close, so that they feel secure and keep their face in view so you can be sure their face is not underwater.
Stay in only about 10-15 minutes the first time and work up to 30 minutes which is about the length of most swim lessons.
What to Wear at the Pool
Babies and small children lose body heat quickly even in warm water – a baby t-shirt is a great solution or a sun protective suit. Swim diapers are a must, no disposables, as the absorbent material used in disposable diapers can contaminate a pool and it will not retain feces. Re-usable cloth diapers that have elastic around the waist & legs are acceptable. If you suspect your child has had a poop accident during classes, please do not check their swim diaper while still in the water; go to the nearest edge and check.
Eating before swimming
There is no credible evidence that eating before swimming is a safety hazard. However young children do swallow a lot of water while learning to swim and are known to spit it up. So I recommend that you feed them at least an hour before swimming – hungry kids don’t have fun.
Most swimming pools use chlorine as a disinfectant, salt water pools are still chlorine pools – you will not be in the water long enough for the chlorine to be a problem unless you or your child has very sensitive skin or has chlorine sensitivity. After swimming it is important to rinse your baby or toddler in the shower.
My final word
Swimming programs for infants and young children at several months of age are widely available in Canada and are a great start to an active healthy life. But there is no evidence that swimming lessons prevent drowning in infants or toddlers. Adult supervision in and around water and properly fenced backyard pools are the only effective strategy to protect your child from water related injuries or death.
[i] Fisher, A., Reilly, J. J., Kelly, L. a, Montgomery, C., Williamson, A., Paton, J. Y., et al. (2005). Fundamental Movement Skills and Habitual Physical Activity in Young Children. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 37(4), 684‐688.
[ii] Lifesaving Society of Canada - http://www.lifesavingsociety.com/who’s-drowning/high- riskgroups/toddlers.aspx –
[iii] Canadian Pediatric Society - Swimming lessons for infants and toddlers Posted: Feb 1 2003 The Canadian Paediatric Society B Hong Nguyen, L Warda; Canadian Paediatric Society , Injury Prevention Committee- http://www.cps.ca/documents/position/swimming-lessons#ref1
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