Monday, February 25, 2008

Swimming lessons not until age 4?

My husband and I were talking to my son this weekend about going to a wedding in a few months. We told him we will be staying in a hotel. (He likes to be warned about these things as opposed to being told at the last minute.) He proceeds to ask us if there will be a pool. I said, probably. That sounds like a good idea to get a hotel with a pool.

Here's where the confusion happened. My four-year-old son then asks me if the hotel will have a cat pool too. My husband and I glance at each other to see if either one of us knows what he's talking about. The answer is obviously no. "Son, what kind of pool?" (Did we hear him right?)

He said it again, "A cat pool." O.K. so we start talking about every trip we've been on that had a pool. Were there any cat shaped pools at Disney World? No. What about at that indoor pool in Utica? No. Hmmm..

Then it hits me. "Do you mean a kiddy pool?" "Yes, mom. A kitty pool." O.K. that explains it.

My husband and I giggle and tell him we're not sure if their will be a kiddy pool and try to explain the difference between kiddy and kitty.

Our son does not know how to swim on his own yet. I am hoping he learns this summer. We have had him in swim lessons since he was a baby, but we haven't been very consistent. He'll have a lesson every day for two weeks, then he won't go swimming for months. When are kids typically able to swim on their own?

I found this headline from the American Academy of Pediatrics:


The recommendation was made to prevent drowning. As you can imagine, I wanted more information on this.

Here's my interview with Dr. Carl Baum, a member of the AAP Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.

Dr. Baum:"I think the most important, overarching point is that members of the public, when considering swimming lessons, often seek a simplistic answer to a complex issue. The danger is that parents will be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that their children who have taken lessons are somehow "drown-proofed.""

Jen:"I saw on the AAP website that swim lessons are not recommended until 4-years-old. Why is that? Is it based on research?

Dr. Baum:"There are studies outlined in the AAP's Policy Statement, "Swimming Programs for Infants and Toddlers," (April 2000; reaffirmed October 2004) suggesting that before the 4th birthday, children ON AVERAGE do not possess the neuromuscular (i.e., coordination, strength) capacity to acquire swimming skills readily. Obviously there is some individual variation, but in general, starting children earlier (than 4 years of age) does not necessarily or reliably translate to earlier mastery of skills."

Jen:"If a child has been in swimming lessons since he/she was a baby. Is that a bad thing?

Dr. Baum:"I don't think there is any evidence that infant lessons are intrinsically harmful, unless parents believe--erroneously--that lessons "drown proof" their children, and therefore then they lower their guard when their children are swimming. There is no substitute for constant, arm's-length supervision of infants and toddlers in the water."

Jen:"Many parents are under the impression to start swimming early to get the child accustomed to the water. Is there any truth to this notion?"

Dr. Baum:"Again, data are lacking here. Getting accustomed to the water--even enjoying the experience--does not translate to safety. And there is always the possible risk that lessons may reduce a younger child's fear of water, leading them to enter the water unsupervised.
When do kids typically learn how to swim without any assistance? There really is no way to answer this question, because there is natural variation in children's neuromuscular capacity (which translates to rate of skill acquisition) as noted above. But there are other factors to consider, such as overcoming fear."

Jen:"When a parent starts swimming lessons, how often should they be?

Dr. Baum:"Once again, I don't think there are any data with which to answer this question."

Jen:"Any mistakes parents tend to make when it comes to swim lessons?"

Dr. Baum:"Yes. In addition to the misconceptions about "drown proofing," as above, I think parents make the mistake of viewing drowning as something that "just happens." In the world of injury prevention, there are no "accidents," only injuries. In other words, tragic injuries can and do occur in a probabilistic way when prevention strategies are either not used or are circumvented. A perfect example is a fence around a pool: if the fence is 3-sided, with the rear of the house serving as the 4th wall, you have potentially defeated the protection of the fence if a toddler can enter the pool area through a door in the house. Studies show that 4-sided "isolation" fencing around the pool, with a self-closing gate, should be the rule. But even this preventive strategy can fail if someone props the gate open! Conversely, parents may incorrectly view swimming lessons as a fool-proof preventive strategy, but there is no evidence to support this in younger age groups.

Jen:"Is learning how to swim an important part of development and why or why not?"

Dr. Baum:"I think it's the other way around! I think development is an important part of learning to swim."

-NewsAnchorMom Jen


Exblick said...

What a great reminder. We had our children in swimming lessons for years. When they were little, it was more of an issue of making sure they were comfortable in the water. Now that they are older, swimming is a fabulous sport for their joints, much better than many of the high impact sports that kids are encouraged to play and young ages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this information. I always believed that the kids needed to be older before starting lessons, and now I feel justified. I agree that every child is different but since my son has an autism spectrum disorder I strongly feel that we have made the right decision in waiting. We started going to the YMCA this fall, and our kids love it. Hopefully they will be able to swim by this summer, but we will still always be in the water with them, and they will still use flotation devices as a safeguard until we are more comfortable with their skills.

Anonymous said...

Living frugally on one income, with 3 children, we chose not to spend $$ on swim lessons. We just enjoyed opportunities to play in pools and made a game out of kicking, moving arms, and going under water as the children grew. Eventually by ages 5-7, with all that pool fun and play and by observing other children, they each learned to swim on their own. Susan T

Anonymous said...

Younger is better, ignorant parents that do not watch their kids will not be eliminated by starting swim lessons later. To say that a 4 year old does not have the motor skills required to learn to swim is just plain wrong, please understand that this advice is always tailored to the lowest common denominator and is not applicable to a very high percentage of kids. The amount of time that kids are going to be encouraged to spend doing inactive non-physical activities in their young lives is staggering. If you can get them into active physical activities at a young age before the video games and computers grab hold you will be better off later on. The allure of the couch starts young, if your child shows an interest and aptitude at a young age for a physical activity then I think you need to let that avenue be explored and give it whatever time it takes to get a good solid grip on them, god knows the cartoons and video games will give you a solid run for your money trying to grab your youngsters attention.

Anonymous said...

In response to anonymous saying that "younger is better" and referring to parents as ingnorant is insulting. There are plenty of activities that children can do other than swimming to provide them with physical activity. Our children go to the pool with us twice a week, but we do not provide them with swimming lessons. I was on the swimteam for most of my childhood and feel confident in my skill level to pass this down to my children. But to say that we as parents are not wathcing our kids by not providing them with swimming lessons is rediculous!Just like all children develop differently, all children will learn to swim at different times. I too believe it is an important skill to learn, but I do not judge others by their individual choices, and neither should you.

Anonymous said...

Having raised 10 children I think I can speak with a little authority. My children were in the water before they were a month old. They could automatically hold their breath and float to the surface within mere weeks. The thing we wanted was for them to be comfortable in the water, whether salt water or fresh water. That way they didn't panic and learned to float their way to safety from a very early age. Several of my children have been credited with saving their playmates over the years. However, at no time were any of them allowed to swim alone in the family pool or in the lake or ocean until they were old enough to drive a car. Learning to swim is not a substitute for being a watchful parent. I've seen children absolutely terrified of the water and that is not good. The earlier a child learns to swim, skate, ride horses, etc., the better for them in adjusting to the wide, wide world. said...

Anonymous, I think what you said makes sense. Learning how to swim is not a substitute for good parenting.
I got another email back with answers from another AAP doctor that are slightly different.
See what you think:
I saw on the AAP website that swim lessons are not recommened until 4-years-old. Why is that? Is is based on research?

Dr. Julie Gilchrist:"Formal swim lessons as a primary means of drowning prevention are not recommended until the age of 4 because of the child's developmental capacity. Additionally, there have been concerns that children would become more attracted to the water and parents might become less vigilant due to the training (potentially causing more drownings). Recent research conducted by NIH suggests that early swim lessons do not increase the risk for drowning in young children and might be slightly protective (please contact Ruth Brenner at NICHD for more information on this study).

Jen:If a child has been in swimming lessons since he/she was a baby. Is that a bad thing?

Dr. Julie Gilchrist:"No, however parents must resist any false sense of security that their child is "drown proof"; no child is drown proof. Every child regardless of swim training should be appropriately protected from the water with four-sided isolation pool fencing and additional adjunctive barriers as appropriate (door locks/alarms, pool alarms or weightbearing pool covers). Additionally, when in the water, all children should be appropriately supervised regardless of their participation in swimming classes.

Jen:Many parents are under the impression to start swimming early to get the child accustomed to the water. Is there any truth to this notion?

Dr.Julie Gilchrist:"There are many different kinds of classes. Parents should feel free to participate in aquatic activities with their young children but should be cautious if someone claims that they can "drown proof" the child or if they observe negative experiences. Early participation also provides the opportunity for parents to be educated regarding water safety."

Jen:When do kids typically learn how to swim without any assistance?
Dr.Julie Gilchrist:"Without specific training, children can perform rudimentary swimming movements in the water sometime around their first birthday. However, remember that the highest rate for drowning occurs among those 1-4 years of age so the movements are not necessarily effective or protective."

Jen:When a parent starts swimming lessons, how often should they be?
Dr.Julie Gilchrist:"Please refer this question to an appropriate instructor."

Jen:Any mistakes parents tend to make when it comes to swim lessons?

Dr.Julie Gilchrist:"Parents may rely on swimming lessons to prevent all drownings. In older children, swimming lessons are certainly protective especially in swimming pools. However, the ability to swim well in a pool does not necessarily mean that a child (or anyone) is capable of dealing with a natural water environment (rivers, ocean) where there may be waves, currents and underwater obstacles. Additionally, parents should be aware of health risks associated with aquatic activities. 1) recreational water illness - ingesting contaminated pool water from ill children or young children not yet toilet trained; prevention includes appropriate chemical treatment help and behavior to prevent contamination. 2) water intoxication - ingestion of large amounts of water by very young children can dilute the blood and lead to seizures; do not forceably dunk children and watch for excessive swallowing of water. 3) psychologic stress from negative experiences in or around the water; these can lead to a life-long fear or avoidance of the water."

Jen:Is learning how to swim an important part of development and why or why not?
Dr.Julie Gilchrist:"YES, AAP and CDC both believe that all children should learn to be safe in and around the water. This is more than just a recreational activity (although it is an exceptional form of exercise), it is a valuable, potentially lifesaving skill."

Anonymous said...

My daughter had a nearly drowning experience when she was three (she is alive thanks to CPR), and I think one of the factors was that she lost the natural fear of water because of swimming lessons, especially because they taught her to jump in the water by herself (which she would never do before taking classes). Now with my third child that is now three, i am going to wait to put her in swimming lessons. I think swimming classes should teach more safety rather than loosing fear of water.

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