Water, Water Everywhere—and That’s Big Trouble

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve heard drowning is a big risk for kids, especially toddlers. Now that it’s summer, should I sign my baby up for swim lessons? If so, what age is appropriate to start?

A: Whoever told you that drowning is a big risk is exactly right. In fact, drowning is a leading cause of injury-related deaths among children under five. Toddlers 12 to 36 months are at the highest risk. But that’s not all. While everyone is focusing on drowning (as they should be), victims who almost drown often end up with medical problems that can plague them for the rest of their lives. These can include: brain damage, seizures, learning disabilities, paralysis, and other respiratory, cardiovascular, and neuromuscular disorders.

The chance of your child drowning is greatest in warm weather states like California and Florida, but can—and does—happen anywhere. Across the nation, nearly half of child drownings occur in freshwater lakes, rivers, and canals; about 30 percent happen in swimming pools—even inflatable ones; about 10 percent in homes (in bathtubs, buckets and even toilets); and a small percentage in the ocean. In a lot of cases, parents are actually close by but assume that they’d hear if their child was drowning. Unfortunately, toddlers, as you’ve no doubt noticed, are top heavy so they’re likely to fall into water head first and can drown silently in minutes. (It doesn’t take much—a child can drown in as little as a few inches of water).

Given how scary these statistics are (at least I hope they are), it’s natural to want to decrease your child’s risk of drowning. But there’s a lot of debate on whether swim lesson for toddlers are effective drowning prevention. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lessons for all kids four and up but doesn’t recommend them for kids under a year. They recently updated their policy on toddlers and preschoolers and now say that swim lessons and water safety classes may decrease their risk of drowning. Many swim schools offer classes for toddlers, and even infants, in order to build a foundation necessary for further instruction. And some organizations, such as Infant Swimming Resource (ISR), focus on teaching babies basic water survival skills, such as rolling over and floating in water.

Some experts advise waiting until six months to introduce babies to water because newborns get cold easily and are particularly susceptible to illness and the chemicals in pools. Between 6 and 24 months is generally a great time to introduce your tyke to the water. At this age most babies are ready for a mommy (or daddy) & me classes and can begin getting comfortable –and having fun– in the water. When looking for a baby swim class, be sure the pool is heated to 92 degrees and has some shelter from direct sun. (And outfit your baby in a swim diaper to avoid adding any presents to the pool.)

Between three and four years of age most children are developmentally ready for formal swimming lessons (without a parent in the water) where they begin to learn actual swimming skills. Whatever you decide to do, though, the most important thing to remember is that swim lessons do not magically protect your child. An adult must always be present—and focused on the children—when kids are in the water. And never, ever leave your child in the care of another child (unless the older one is