If Swim Lessons Won't Keep My Toddler from Drowning, What Will?

by ParentCo. July 05, 2017

Toddler learning swimming

This week, two things happened. First, I read an article about toddler swim lessons and their ineffectiveness at preventing drowning. It crossed my newsfeed again and again, parents online sharing it like crazy and silently agreeing with each other through the click of the “like” button. Lately, anytime there’s a parenting article where the gist is “less is more,” everyone wants in. See, I’m doing it right, they nod. This one has been shared nearly 38,000 times on Facebook alone, and its message is a scary one: if you think your kid isn’t going to drown just because you put him in swim lessons, you’re wrong.

The second thing that happened this week was that my kids finished their swim lessons for the school year, and my freshly-turned four-year-old passed our YMCA’s swim test by jumping into the deep end, treading water for 30 seconds, and swimming the length of the 25-yard pool. I was pleased as pie, and so was he.

So I’ll admit, I was a little annoyed when I first read the headline bolding proclaiming, “Swim Lessons Won’t Keep Your Toddler From Drowning.” I have spent not a small amount of money on these swim lessons over the years, and I was finally feeling justified when my youngest swam that pool length. Who are you to rain on my parade?

The article goes on to detail the statistics, including the fact that the majority of people who drown are actually strong swimmers. Well, yeah. There are all sorts of problems with this statistic, the biggest of which is that swimmers, of course, are far more likely overall to engage in water activities, thereby naturally increasing their likelihood of drowning compared to people who don’t participate. People who don’t go swimming are obviously at a lower risk of drowning.

As I read the article, though, my stance softened just a little bit. Essentially, despite the catchy headline, the message is that too many parents think that swimming lessons alone will prevent drowning deaths. Even worse, some children and parents might feel overly confident after swimming lessons and therefore are more likely to be at risk of drowning.

Still, I wondered, "Do swimming lessons provide any level of protection against drowning or am I just throwing my money down the nasty locker room floor drain at the gym?"

One thing the article didn’t highlight (and actually skipped over quite quickly) is the fact that the only studies comparing the swim lesson experiences of actual drowning victims and near-drowning victims do show that swimming lessons decrease the risk of drowning deaths, and that, overall, they do so dramatically. While the article dismisses one study due to its “wide confidence intervals,” it doesn’t mention that this confidence interval simply translates to varying degrees of protection from drowning. Estimates ranged from a three percent decrease in likelihood of drowning to a 99 percent decrease in likelihood, with the average lying at 88 percent. Case studies have revealed a similar correlation between lack of formal swimming lessons and likelihood of drowning in China and Bangladesh.

No matter how you slice it, there is an inverse relationship between formal swimming lessons and the risk of drowning. As one goes up, the other goes down. Of course, these studies are fairly small since data on the swimming lesson experiences of drowning victims is not easy to attain, so further research is needed before reaching a causal conclusion. Still, it should be noted that there is no data to refute these studies, and there is absolutely no data to suggest that children who take swimming lessons are actually more prone to drowning deaths.

In light of recent studies refuting the idea that toddler swim lessons are ill-advised, even the American Academy of Pediatrics has revised their stance, which previously recommended that children not start swimming lessons until age four. Now, the AAP agrees that there is no evidence to suggest that children should delay swimming lessons. Instead, they now recommend that children start swim lessons any time after their first birthday, with parents making a decision that is best for their child, health, and lifestyle.

Here’s the important part that bears repeating: swimmers can still drown.

So, I have to ask myself, if swim lessons don’t prevent drowning, what does? Not going to the pool? Not walking on docks or piers? It seems the only thing that’s a safeguard against drowning is staying in bed.

All joking aside, though, it’s true. Neither swimming lessons nor floaties nor fenced pools nor adults watching will prevent drowning on their own. Instead, it’s a combination of preventative measures that add up to safeguard our children. The AAP refers to it as “layers of protection.”

Since our kids are likely to get up every morning and go about their day, sometimes near water and sometimes even swimming in it, it’s important to recognize these layers of protection. Here are some precautions recommended by both the AAP and the World Health Organization:

1 | Watch your children around the water

I know, I get it – I spend just about all day, every day staring at the fruits of my womb, can’t I have a second to play Candy Crush? Absolutely! Yes! But not while your kid is in the water. Or next to the water. Or thinking about making a break for the water.

Kids are unpredictable and drowning really happens as quickly and as quietly as they say it does, so put down your phone and ogle those babies hard until you’re away from the water again.

2 | Take the swim lessons

When you feel your child is ready, put her in swimming lessons. Also keep in mind that good swimming lessons don’t just teach swimming skills, they teach water safety and awareness. I still remember my boys’ very first swimming lessons when they perched on the edge of the pool while the teacher lectured them on pool and water safety. Their instructor did this at the start of every lesson for nearly six months. She did it until they could give the lecture themselves.

Talk to trusted friends or family to find good lessons in your area that include a strong water safety component. Then, listen to the instructor as she explains the rules around the water and make sure that you use the same vocabulary and boundaries to reinforce the lessons with your kids.

3 | Get CPR certified

This is obviously for the worst case scenario, but you never know when you might be in the position to help someone, whether it’s your own child, a friend’s, or someone else’s entirely. Drowning isn’t the only accident that could require CPR, so this one is really a multipurpose preventative measure. Check the Red Cross website to find a class near you.

4 | Purchase, test, and use a U.S. Coast-Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD)

There are tons of swim floats on the market, but only a few are approved as actual safety devices. Once I saw a panic-inducing video of a toddler flipped upside down in a floating donut-shaped inflatable tube. His legs kicked frantically in the air until someone, maybe an older sister, righted him.

For most purposes, a life jacket labeled USCG APPROVED TYPE III will suffice – these lifejackets are designed to be comfortable for daily use but are not suited for extended periods of time in rough water and are not designed to turn unconscious people face up in the water. You would need a TYPE I to do that. Still, if you are adequately supervising your child and staying within a reasonable distance of them, a TYPE III PFD will be enough to provide you the time to get to them should they need assistance, and they won’t be so uncomfortable that the kids refuse to wear them.

Once you’ve purchased your child’s PFD, be sure to test it in the water. If it doesn’t automatically flip your child face up, be absolutely certain that it doesn’t pin him facedown, even when he comes up from underwater at awkward angles, as kids are wont to do when they’re practicing their “dives.”

5 | Fence your pool

Home pools are the place that children under the age of five are most likely to drown. After age five, drownings are more common in natural settings like lakes or oceans.

Limit access to the pool entirely by installing a four-sided fence with locked gate. Be 100 percent certain that your children, your neighbor’s children, or any other curious little passers-by cannot gain access to the pool area without an adult.

A few weeks ago, my four-year-old fell into his grandmother’s pool. He fell in awkwardly, backwards and upside down, as he slipped off the rear of an inflatable dinosaur that he probably shouldn’t have been on in the first place. The water was still cold, in the 60s, so it was shocking to him as he plunged into the deep end. But up he popped, looking rather panicked, and he made his way to the side of the pool. He got out and began to cry. Not cough, but cry.

Did his swim lessons save his life? No way. There were adults there, watching him, and any one of them could have jumped in and grabbed him. We could have also avoided the situation had he been wearing his lifejacket or stayed away from the pool altogether.

Did his swimming lessons ensure that he knew what to do when he fell in, unexpectedly and in a disorienting position? They sure did. They are just a small piece of the puzzle.

So, do swimming lessons prevent drowning? No, but they help.



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