Last reviewed and revised on June 4, 2010
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
On a hot day, there's nothing better than playing in the water. Actually, on a cold day, spending time in a warm indoor pool can be pretty great, too. If you know how to swim or can do more than jump and splash, it's even better.
Giving your child swimming lessons can be a wonderful way to introduce them to this great form of exercise and fun. Swimming lessons teach water safety skills. Given that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 14, those skills can save lives.
Here's what you need to know about teaching your child to swim.
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When Should Lessons Start?
Until May 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that only children 4 years and older learn to swim. By age 4, children should be developmentally ready for lessons.
But the AAP changed its position in May 2010 because of some studies showing that younger children may be less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming instruction. Parents should now consider swimming lessons if they feel their child is emotionally and physically ready especially if their child is around water, like a family pool, often.
Because the studies were small and don't say what kinds of lessons are best, the AAP stopped short of requiring lessons for 1- to 3-year-olds.
The AAP does not recommend swimming lessons for children younger than a year, as this has not been shown to make a difference. And a study published in the June 2007 issue of the journal Pediatrics, gives parents another reason to not teach babies to swim.
Researchers in Belgium found that children who had taken swim classes in indoor pools as infants were more likely to develop asthma and chronic bronchitis later in childhood. This was presumably due to inhaling trichloramine. This chemical is used to keep pools clean, but it can damage the lining of young lungs.
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Is Your Child Ready?
You may think it's a great idea to get Junior in the pool, but Junior may or may not agree with you. Some kids are frightened of the water. (And if fear keeps him from jumping in, that helps keep him safe!) If Junior is screaming and putting up a fight, it's unlikely that much learning or fun will be possible.
Sometimes a child will warm up to the idea by just watching a swim class or two perhaps from poolside in regular clothes. Some kids need to hold tight to a grown-up in the water at the beginning before they're willing to try things on their own. But if after two classes you aren't getting anywhere, don't force it. You could end up making your child even more afraid. Try again in a few months.
Some kids are so excited to get into the water that they overestimate their own ability. If that's the case with your child, talk to the teacher and be sure you find a class with good supervision.
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What To Look For in a Swimming Class
How do you know which swimming class is best for your child? The experiences of other parents can be very helpful. Ask around. Visit the place where the class is held, and, if possible, observe the teacher in action. Some things to think about and watch for include:
- Safety Is there a lifeguard on duty? Is there appropriate lifesaving and first aid equipment? Are there safety rules posted and enforced? Do the children learn water safety skills as well as how to swim? Is the teacher watching all the children at all times?
- Facility Is the pool or beach clean and safe? What about the bathrooms and changing areas?
- Certification If you can find a teacher certified by the American Red Cross or YMCA, you know you are getting someone who has training in teaching and in safety.
- Class size The lower the student-to-teacher ratio, the better. Try for a class of no more than six children per teacher.
- Class length For most children, 30 to 45 minutes is plenty of time. After that, they start getting distracted and tired.
- Class organization Are children grouped by age or skill level? (One or the other might work better for your child.) Is there a curriculum that advances the children as they gain skills (such as the programs used by the American Red Cross and the YMCA)?
- Teaching style The teacher should get in the water with the children, and be supportive and positive. Look for a teacher who makes learning fun by incorporating games into the lessons.
Remember that knowing how to swim doesn't mean your child can't drown. Even if your child is a proficient swimmer, she still needs constant supervision around water and should wear a lifejacket whenever she is on a boat.
Remember, too, that each child learns at her own pace. Try not to compare your child with others. Swimming should be fun and a skill that can bring your child a lifetime of exercise and safety.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.