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Sports & Fitness

When Should Kids Start Swimming Lessons?

Jul 26, 2013

We've all seen the magical videos: babies floating along underwater, eyes wide open, looking ethereal and calm as they wiggle a few short feet in the pool and pop their heads up out of the water. Are they actually swimming?

Can infants be taught how to swim? And if so, should we all be enrolling our newborns in swimming lessons?

The answer is no, according to Barbara Byers, public education director for the Lifesaving Society in Toronto. "The position of the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) is that kids younger than four don't have the developmental ability to acquire and master swimming skills. We support that view." In addition to being unable to retain the instructions they're taught in a swimming lesson, or use that instruction in a life-threatening situation, lessons for children of that age may foster a false sense of security in parents. "If a two-year-old has had a lesson and has some ability to swim in the water independently, some parents may assume they are 'drown-proof'," says Barbara. "That is very obviously not the case. Most kids drown by wandering into a pool unattended, when the caregivers aren't paying attention."

That doesn't mean kids under the age of four shouldn't be in the water and have fun; a parent-and-tot swimming class is a perfect introduction to swimming. "At that age, it should be about creating positive experiences in the water. You want the child to think that being in the water is fun, and being in the pool with a parent is wonderful. Then when they are old enough to go into a structured lesson, they learn really quickly, and they're already comfortable in the water." A parent-and-tot lesson also gives instructors an opportunity to impart important safety messages to the parents.

Kids can start having fun in the pool at three months. They can get into the pool with mom or dad, although they should not put their head under until they can hold their breath. And although it's the Lifesaving Society's position that every child should have swimming lessons, Barbara also notes that every child is different and has to find his or her own comfort level in the water. "It's important not to delay a child's introduction to the water too much, because that creates fear and self-consciousness; kids who haven't had any exposure to water by a certain age start to get fearful. But if a kid doesn't enjoy swimming lessons at first, don't push it. If they're crying and clinging to the wall, back off for a while. You don't want to create a negative feeling about swimming. You want them to be excited and happy about it. The more positive they are, the more quickly they will learn."

Safety Tips from the Royal Lifesaving Society:

  • Keep children under five years of age within arm's reach at all times around water.
  • Restrict access to backyard pools and ensure there is a lockable gate and fence around the pool.
  • Make sure children are wearing an approved lifejacket or personal flotation device when playing near water.
  • Lock all doors leading out to bodies of water and secure low windows through which a child could crawl.
  • Establish rules that children must follow when near water.
  • Closely supervise children with inflatable toys.
  • Drain backyard wading pools and empty buckets of water when not in use.

Drowning Facts:

  • Almost 500 Canadians die every year in water-related incidents. Children under five are at extreme risk of drowning.
  • Drownings usually happen when children are momentarily unsupervised.
  • Most drownings and near drownings occur in unsupervised outdoor waterways. 

-from the Royal Lifesaving Society

Originally published in ParentsCanada, May 2011

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