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 policy.

“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 needs.”

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 those.”