Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer Swim Safety

With these 100 degree Texas temperatures and a family beach vacation next week water safety has been on my mind a lot lately. As the temperatures heat up and children get out of school for the summer, many families will be heading to the pool, lake, and beach or filling up the backyard inflatable pool. These water-filled times bring many laughs and family memories, but water safety is a must in order to make the experience both fun and safe for children of all ages.

There are some eye-opening statistics when it comes to children and water activities:
  • Approximately 3800 US children younger than 20 years visited a hospital emergency department for a nonfatal drowning event in 2008; more than 60% of those children were hospitalized.
  • Approximately 1100 US children younger than 20 years died from drowning in 2006.
  • Drowning is the number 2 leading cause of accidental death in children.
  • Two-thirds of deaths occur from May through August.
  • 282 US boys ages 15-19 died from accidental drowning in 2006.
  • Only 10% of children were completely unsupervised at the time of the drowning.
  • There is no evidence that drowning risk is higher in poor swimmers.
  • 76% of drowning occurred when there was no pool fencing or fencing was broken.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Swim Lesson Recommendations
Experts generally recommend that multiple “layers of protection” be used to prevent drowning, because no single strategy is likely to prevent all submersion deaths and injuries. Such layers might include environmental and personal measures such as:
  • Adult supervision, particularly "touch supervision"
  • Pool fencing
  • Pool covers (only if used properly & can hold the weight of children)
  • Water-entry alarms
  • Lifeguards
  • CPR training (Additional CPR information and courses for parents and caregivers is available through the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross).
  • Using a "designated water watcher"
  • Swimming and survival skills training
  • Use of Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
Should my young child take swim lessons?
Parents may feel that swim lessons for young children can help prevent drownings, but there is little evidence that this is true. Parents may also feel pressure to enroll their young children in swim lessons because friends and neighbors may have very young swimmers. But, unfortunately many of us have witnessed our young children screaming or crying through very expensive swim lessons. How do we balance our desire to keep our children water safe and not put them (and us) through a traumatic experience? The age at which to teach water-survival skills or initiate swimming lessons must be individualized on the basis of a variety of factors such as a child's frequency of exposure to water, health concerns related directly to the child (chemical exposure, asthma, skin allergies), water quality available, emotional maturity, and physical limitations.

In 2010 the AAP updated its previous recommendations on swim lessons in children under 4 years of age. The AAP no longer warns against swim lessons for children under 4, but does not feel there is enough evidence to recommend them either. Parents wondering what they should do may want to consider some pros and cons of early swim lessons.

Early Swim Lessons: Pros
  • All children should eventually learn to swim.
  • One 8- to 12-week training course for preschool-aged (24–42 months) children showed were able to develop the water-safety skills necessary to survive a fall into a home swimming pool. With training, the young children could stand and recover when dropped into 2 ft of water, kick propulsively, and get to the side of the pool after jumping in or being released in the pool by an adult.
  • Some children love swim lessons and don't experience the stress other children may exhibit.
Early Swim Lessons: Cons
  • swim lessons could cause parents to develop a false sense of security leading to inadequate supervision around water.
  • swimming programs might reduce a child's fear of water and unwittingly encourage him or her to enter the water without supervision.
  • some children will protest swim lessons creating a stressful, unhappy, and even fearful experience for both children and parents.
What are good swim lessons?
If you choose to enroll your young child in swim lessons, the World Aquatic Infants and Children Network has published guidelines for the operation of aquatic programs for children younger than 3 years. The guidelines address (1) required parental involvement, (2) a fun atmosphere with 1-on-1 teaching, (3) qualified teachers, (4) warm water, (5) maintenance of water purity, and (6) a limited number of submersions to prevent water ingestion and hyponatremia (an electrolyte imbalance that causes dizziness and vomiting).

Can parents make swim lessons go more smoothly?
Here are some tips parents can consider that might help make swim lessons an easier experience for you and your child. Considering some basics may help improve your experience.

Time of day: Ensure that the time you schedule lessons is generally a good time of day for your child. Some children are slow to wake up in the morning or early risers may be worn out by the time they have an afternoon lesson.

Snack: Swimming burns a lot of calories. Providing a healthy protein-rich snack (hummus, cheese cubes, nut butters) before a scheduled swim lesson may provide your child fuel to make it through swim lessons and having a snack ready for after the lesson may help avoid a meltdown on the way home. Try to avoid foods that might cause a spike and drop in blood sugars (foods high in carbs and low in fiber and protein).

Let your child "be the instructor": Let your child give their doll or favorite superhero swim lessons in bathtub or in the backyard in a bucket before they ever begin lessons and then particularly if you are noticing they aren't enjoying lessons. Children learn through play and are often most apt to be able to express their emotions through play. As you listen to their dialog you may get tremendous insight into any fears they have about swim lessons. This process also allows your child to feel they have some control in an adult centered situation. When your child is the "instructor" you may become informed about their opinions on the temperature of the water or how the swim instructor talks to the children in your child's actual lessons. You can also visit a pool with your child and let them give you a lesson…just be sure to keep your head above water so you can keep your eyes on them at all times.

Let your child warm up to people: Consider your child's temperament when deciding the lessons in which to enroll them. Ask to meet the swim instructor before your child has the first lesson and allow them a chance to meet them outside of the pool first. A chance for children to acclimate to a new caregiver is common practice in enrolling children in preschool.

Let your child warm up to the water: You may not be able to adjust the temperature of the water unless lessons are at your own house, but try to provide your children lessons in water that is a comfortable (warm) temperature for your child.

Is your child ready? Your child may not be emotionally, physically, or behaviorally ready for swim lessons this year. That is o.k. Emotionally he/she may not generally comfortable with other adults. Physically there is a lot of coordination involved in learning to swim. There are also many directions to follow and behavioral expectations with swim lessons, especially small group lessons requiring children to sit on the ledge and wait.

Are you ready? If you are not comfortable in the water or with your child being in the water with someone other than you, your child may sense that fear. If your child (or you) isn’t ready, wait and try again soon.

What can parents do?
As parents, we do so much to keep our children happy and safe. If our children are brave enough to make it through swim lessons we can put down our magazines, smart phones, and favorite summer readings to ensure we are closely watching them. We can get in the water with them and be at arms reach of young children. We can learn CPR and when we remember to pack snacks, and goggles, and sunscreen, we need to also remember to have a charged phone handy in case there is an emergency. We can check for proper pool drain covers and pool fences. We can talk to our teenagers about the dangers of horseplay and other water risks and especially that alcohol and water fun does not mix.

Remember water safety is a multi-layer approach and providing children swim lessons is only one step that may help prevent a water accident. There are links below for additional useful water safety information. I particularly like coastguard, Mario Vittone's website ( ) and his article, Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning, which provides excellent parent friendly insight for water safety.

Hope you have a fun-filled summer and stay water safe.

What have you decided about swim lessons for your child?
Do you have other important water safety tips to share?

Additional Resources:

Swimming Pool Safety

AAP Gives Updated Advice on Drowning Prevention

Colin's Hope

Mario Vittone

American Red Cross, Advisory Council on First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness. ACFASP scientific review: minimum age for swimming lessons. Available at: Accessed November 24, 2009

Weiss, J. (2010). From the American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy Statement: Prevention of Drowning. Pediatrics. Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention 126:1 178-185;published ahead of print May 24, 2010, doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1264.

photo courtesy of Worakit Sirijinda

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