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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Children and Swimming Lessons--What Parents Should Know

November 14, 2013

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.

Enrolling your child in swimming lessons can be a wonderful way of introducing 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?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends swimming lessons for children. By age 4, children should be ready. Previously they did not recommend lessons for children ages 1 to 4, but recent experience suggests that children between 1 and 4 may be less likely to drown if they have had some swimming instruction. While the AAP doesn't recommend formal lessons at that age, they do say that parents may want to consider lessons, based on their child's ability, temperament and health. They do not recommend lessons for children less than a year old.


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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.

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