The American Academy of Pediatrics has relaxed its guidelines on swim lessons for children under age 5, in light of new evidence that pool safety classes for toddlers may decrease drowning risk.
“The [AAP’s] policy has always been that kids 4 and
older should learn to swim,” said Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., author
of AAP’s new policy statement. “It was the younger ones
that we weren’t so sure about.”
In the past, AAP had discouraged swim lessons for children younger
than 4 years old, citing a lack of scientific evidence one way or
another about the effects of such lessons for this age group.
Two recent case-control studies prompted AAP to develop its new
guidelines. The research, which analyzed a group of children aged 1
to 4, suggests that formal swim lessons may potentially decrease a
child’s risk of drowning, according to Julie Gilchrist, a
medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in
Atlanta, who worked closely with Weiss on developing the new
“The studies are certainly not strong enough for us to say,
‘Everybody must run out and get their 1-year-old swimming
lessons right away,’” Weiss said. “I wish I could
just say, ‘At a certain age, this is the right time.’
But each kid’s different, and they have their different
AAP’s announcement came as no surprise to Bob Hubbard,
director of Hubbard Swim School in Phoenix. “We’ve
been teaching kids under the age of 4 to swim since
’92,” he said. “We’ve had hundreds of
doctors and pediatricians in the water with us. So we’re
tremendously supportive of the [AAP’s] change in position.”
Weiss and Hubbard emphasize that swim school alone isn’t an
all-around defense against drowning: Layers of protection, such as
fences and alarms, are crucial for water safety. And swim
instructors who spend time with the parents can reinforce the need
for constant supervision, which also is essential.
Still, some questions remain to be answered. Though the studies
determined which of the children had taken swim lessons, the
research didn’t distinguish how the lessons were structured,
how frequent they were and at what age they began.
The differences between swim lessons and water survival training
can be significant, according to Johnny Johnson, director of Blue
Buoy Swim School in Tustin, Calif. “It’s not the
age at which the kids are taught,” he said, “but the
amount of stress and aggressiveness in the format of the class.”
Modern swim lessons usually are based on one of two methods. One
approach focuses on helping children develop swimming techniques,
but also incorporates safety skills. The second type of program
emphasizes water safety and survival, and teaches children to
respond instinctively to water-related dangers. And, Johnson said,
there are overly aggressive programs in both of those camps.
Some of those programs push children to exhaustion and even illness
for the sake of quick results. Thus, Gilchrist urges parents to
choose a class with sensible expectations, no matter how its
lessons are organized.
“The child [should be] willing and able to do the things that
are asked of them without emotional distress,” she said.
“There are some techniques that are focused on the positive,
and there are others that are somewhat distressing, for both the
parent and the child. And I would encourage parents to avoid