Accidental drowning is one of the leading causes of death in children under the age of five. Swimming lessons may seem like a simple way to prevent drowning, but the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that lessons for young children may give parents a false sense of security.

In April 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) created a wave of controversy with its official position on swimming lessons. The organization reaffirmed its position in 2004, saying, in general, that children are not developmentally ready for formal swimming lessons before the age of four, and it warns that parents should not necessarily feel secure about their children's swimming ability if they enroll them in swim classes at an early age.

The Argument for Starting Earlier

Shannon Sullivan, a Red Cross-certified water safety instructor in Virginia, doesn't agree with setting a certain age for teaching children how to swim.

"Most children are fascinated with water and at very young ages have no fear of the water," says Sullivan. "This can be a very dangerous mix if parents do not safely expose their children to the water and teach them the basics, such as learning to float, and, most importantly, getting them comfortable in the water. The more comfortable they are the less likely they are to panic."

"Obviously infants don't have the ability to learn strokes," she continues, "but they can learn to float, close their mouths under water and learn to trust the feeling of near weightlessness." Having taught all ages, Sullivan has found that infants are the easiest to teach because they have no fear, which can be the biggest deterrent to learning how to swim. By age four, many children fear the water because they've seen how their parents react when they get too close to the edge of the pool or the water at the beach.

There is also some evidence that swimming lessons are associated with a reduced risk of drowning. In a study looking at a group of children who drowned compared with a group of healthy children, the group of children who drowned were less likely to have had formal swimming lessons. the study included children aged 1-19 years old.

A Closer Look at the AAP Recommendations

"I think a lot of people have misunderstood the AAP statement," says Patti Rhynders, director of injury prevention programs at Children's Medical Center of Dallas. "Nobody is saying don't do things in the water with your children. But parents shouldn't be misled into thinking that children younger than four can learn to swim in a way to prevent drowning. We don't want parents to think swimming lessons will buy them time if their child gets to the pool unsupervised." She fears that parents may be less vigilant in keeping their children separated from the water.

Touch Supervision

In its policy statement, the AAP recommends "touch supervision." This means parents should always be within an arm's length when their children are in or around water.

"There is no data on whether early water exposure increases or decreases risk of drowning. But there is certainly the possibility that for at least some children, it would reduce their natural healthy fear of water too early in their life," says Marilyn J. Bull, MD, chairperson of the committee on injury and poison prevention for the AAP.

"One of the most important things parents need to know is that you always stay with your child in the water," says Jean Coile, aquatics director at the YWCA in Asheville, North Carolina, who teaches swimming lessons to children as young as six months old. She cautions that parents may think swimming lessons prevent drowning, but, she says, they only teach children to play more safely in the water with parental supervision.

Danger in the Backyard

Tragically, many children under the age of five drown in their own backyard pools.

"The single most effective way to prevent your children from drowning in the pool is to fence the pool in so it's separate from the yard, the house, and the play area," advises Rhynders.

Rhynders explains that small children are often not able to transfer what they learn in swimming lessons to a situation in which they enter the pool unexpectedly. She warns that because toddlers are top heavy, they are in danger of being pulled in by their own weight if they lean over the water.

"It takes as little as three seconds for a child to fall in the water silently," says Rhynders.

She recommends establishing the following layers of barriers to prevent children from getting to the water:

  • Place locks on windows and doors leading to a pool or hot tub area.
  • Seal off doggy doors leading to a pool area.
  • Enclose pool with a non-climbable five foot fence.
  • Attach self-closing, self-latching gates to fences.
  • Make sure gates open outward (toddlers try to open things by pushing on them).
  • Use a solid pool safety cover.
  • Equip pool with shepherd's hook and lifesaving rings.
  • Get training in CPR and infant CPR.
  • Keep a telephone near the pool.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of the age at which you start your child in swim classes, there are key points to remember:

  • Never leave your child unsupervised in or around water.
  • Don't be misled into thinking that swim classes can "drown-proof" your child.
  • Establish layers of protection to keep your child out of harm's way.