New guidelines on swim lessons: Start at age 1

Children swim at Bicentennial Pool in Santa Fe on its opening day in 2016. In its newest water safety guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children start swimming lessons around age 1 to help decrease risks of drowning — a leading cause of accidental deaths in children. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

Hillary Joseph can’t remember not being able to swim. When your backyard is a lake, as it was for Joseph and her two sisters growing up in northern Wisconsin, and when your grandparents live on Captiva Island, Fla., with a pool, you have to learn.

“While we didn’t have formal lessons, our parents gave us specific goals, such as swimming about 100 yards without stopping to and from an offshore raft,” she recalls.

Though Joseph and her husband, Bryon Thornburgh, now call landlocked Denver home, both their daughter, Sierra, 6, and 4-year-old son, Declan, were enrolled in swimming lessons before they were out of diapers. “Swimming is an essential life skill,” Joseph says.

Her maternal caution is warranted. Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death in U.S. children ages 1 to 4, and the third-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in kids ages 5 to 19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In its newest water safety guidelines, the AAP recommended children start swimming lessons around age 1 to help decrease risks of drowning. This is the first time the AAP has suggested children begin learning water safety skills at such a young age.

“Research has found that swim lessons are beneficial for children starting around age 1,” Linda Quan, a co-author of the policy statement, said in a AAP news release.

“Formal lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent,” said Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, the philanthropic arm of USA Swimming, whose goal is to have every child learn to swim.

“We have found a child can start at 6 months or when they are able to hold their head upright,” says Lindsay Mondick, senior manager of aquatics for the YMCA of the USA, Other factors to consider include health status, emotional maturity, and physical and cognitive limitations.

“Think of group swim lessons [as] the same as having your kid wear a bike helmet,” says Gina Bewersdorf, who owns three Goldfish Swim Schools in northern Virginia. The private swimming facilities accept children as young as 4 months old. “Our goal is to get them into the water, so they aren’t fearful. Parents even take infants underwater when the child is comfortable doing so,” says the mother of two, whose daughter started lessons at 6 months old.

At such a young age, kids shouldn’t be expected to do the backstroke, but they can blow bubbles, kick and eventually learn to roll over and float on their back, all building blocks to future aquatic skills.

Not every program is right for every child. You may need to dive deep into the specifics to find swim lessons that meet your needs. Start at the USA Swimming Foundation website. Its Make A Splash program has the largest network of swimming instructors in the United States, with more than 1,000 vetted partners, including Ys, recreation centers and private swim schools. Go to USAswimmingfoundation.org and type in your ZIP code or city/state under “Find Swim Lessons.”

Pools differ, so you’ll want to visit one or more facilities before enrolling your child. Get a feel for the place, see the pool and meet the staff. Consider whether you want an indoor or outdoor pool; one with both a shallow and deep end; one that dedicates only a portion of its space to swim lessons, has multiple lessons or other activities occurring simultaneously, or is designed specifically for lessons. Check the water temperature, which may be set from 77 to 82 degrees.

Ask about the ratio of children to instructors; Hesse says the standard is no more than six to one. How long are the lessons? At minimum, children should be in the water for 30 minutes per class, with six to eight lessons per session. Make sure the instructors are certified by a reputable organization such as the American Red Cross, YMCA or Ellis & Associates, an aquatic safety firm. Are certified lifeguards on duty during lessons to provide extra protection? Is the pool insured? That’s one more indication it’s a professional facility.

One of Joseph’s more practical criteria: A separate changing room for families with toilet and shower, where she could change her son and daughter together before and after lessons (especially important during a Colorado winter).

Though every child develops at their own rate, just like walking, talking or potty training, they are typically ready for more skills-based swim lessons sometime between ages 3 and 5. At that point, the goal is self-rescue should they unexpectedly fall in the water. Key skills include the ability to enter the water, surface, turn around, propel oneself for at least 25 yards, float or tread water, and get out safely.