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Kids in the Water

Summertime swim safety.
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No Way to "Drown-Proof" continued...

Debbie Dorsey, outgoing president of the aquatic section for the National Recreation and Park Association, in Ashburn, Va., says she sees no problem with children under 4 participating in swim programs -- as long as parents are routinely warned that the lessons will not drown-proof small children. "It's a one-on-one kind of time where they can work on movements in the water," says Dorsey, who is Georgia Tech University's aquatics director. "But they're not going to come out and swim."

Yet Tom Griffiths, author of several books on pool safety, argues that children under age 4 are not "physically or emotionally ready" for any aquatic program. Even if classes make no promises, parents tend to push their kids, says Griffiths, Pennsylvania State University's aquatics director. "Just play with your kids in the water," he says, and ease them into getting their faces wet. But save the swimming lessons for later.

The Best Way to Get Kids' Feet Wet

An estimated 5 to 10 million American infants and preschool children participate in some type of aquatic program, according to the Academy. At the suburban Des Moines Y and many others, "lessons" start at age 3 -- but they're very low-key. "At 3, it's just getting them comfortable in the class. They're just exploring."

For kids aged 6 months to 3 years, lessons aren't offered. Instead, the children and their parents can take a water adjustment/orientation class called "Waterbabies." "Sing and blow bubbles with your new infant," reads the Y brochure's description of the program. "This fun class emphasizes water adjustment and quality family time."

Smith advises parents to make sure they join the right program for the right reasons. "If you're going because you enjoy being in the water and want to share that with the baby, I don't have a problem with that," she says. "If you're going with the expectation that your baby is going to swim and this will make the baby safer, don't do it,"

For a safe trip to the pool, pediatricians offer these additional suggestions:

  • Don't consider any child safe in the water, even after participation in an aquatic program. First, make sure that swimming ability has been demonstrated, and then stick to pools with lifeguards on duty. With infants or toddlers, even in shallow water, always stay within an arm's length of the child.
  • If you opt for an infant/toddler water program, pick one that doesn't require children to go under water repeatedly. Kids can swallow so much water that they develop water intoxification, resulting in convulsions, shock, and even death. Swallowing water also makes young children more susceptible to waterborne bacteria such as E. coli or Cryptosporidium.
  • Don't use water wings and other blow-up swimming aids as stand-ins for life vests. They offer a false sense of security and can suddenly deflate or fall off. Kids can also get caught in inflatable swim rings if they turn over and are unable to right themselves.
  • Finally, it's an excellent idea for parents and caregivers who are going to accompany young children to any place where there's water to learn CPR and other lifesaving emergency techniques.

Betsy Rubiner, based in Des Moines, Iowa, specializes in writing about children and families. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Globe, among other publications.

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