We were on the waitlist for swim lessons for over a year. Once off the list, F went in for the first lesson (pictured here) jumped in, did a great job, and then refused to ever go back in again. We went every week, twice a week, sat on the pool deck, and watched his peers swim. We waited. We watched. He often tantrumed. Parents stared. Friends commiserated. My mom tried to tell me what to do.

But then for the last class, last week, auspiciously F jumped back in again and gave it a go. Nothing is ever quite what I expect to be. When it comes to swimming lessons, at least in my world, everyone has an opinion and maybe a plan.

Yesterday, the AAP published a revised policy statement about the prevention of drowning. Most noteworthy, they have lifted the recommendation against swim lessons before the age of 4 for most children. With a cautious brush stroke, the AAP has painted the picture that swimming lessons are okay after age 1, depending on physical, emotional and developmental maturity. For most children, it is okay to start lessons after age 1. Really, it’s up to you if you feel your toddler is ready to take the plunge.

Some background: pediatricians have previously advised that swimming lessons did not protect against drowning in toddlerhood. The AAP went so far as to discourage swim lessons before age 4. Basically, research and insights from drowning experts found that swim lessons may give parents and toddlers a “false sense of security” around water. There was also no evidence proving swim lessons early in life made for earlier proficiency in swimming. And prior to 2009, there was no data to say that lessons decreased the likelihood of drowning. Doctors felt that if toddlers were out of arm’s reach, or their parents were distracted while their child was near any water, a toddler could easily fall into a pool, march into a lake, or slip out of arms reach and the unthinkable could occur. A drowning.

There are two groups of people that drown the most: toddlers and male teenagers. In teenagers, alcohol plays a big role. In 2006, 1100 children drown in the United States.  So this is serious and not just someone else’s problem to deal with.

There is no disputing that an infant or toddler can have a drowning event in a mere seconds. This is still and will always be the case. However, how I council about swimming lessons all changed when a thorough and nicely done study published last year found that formal swimming lessons between ages 1-4 years of age conferred a 88% reduction of risk from drowning. This is not true for informal lessons (the kind you and I could teach). So we still need to pay the trained pros to instruct our children. I wrote about the study in a blog post about infant swimming back in February. With proper supervision, swimming (when your child agrees to enter the water!) can be a sincere delight.

The AAP has changed its recommendation and endorsed swimming for most toddlers partly because of the above study and also due to a Chinese study that revealed similar drowning protection.

Things To Consider For Infant and Toddler Swimmers

  • Never leave your toddler or child even for a moment without supervision when in or around pools, spas, beach fronts, irrigation ditches and any open standing water.
  • Whenever swimming, your infant or toddler should always be an arm’s length away. A supervising adult, with swimming skills, should provide “touch supervision.” That means you have to get in the pool with them. Really and truly. Don the suit…
  • Be cautious about blow up or big inflatable pools because those often don’t have fences and protection around them to protect children from entering. And children may lean over and fall into them unintentionally.
  • Lots of pediatricians support infant and toddler swimming. But they support being very careful. Most pediatricians have had to care for a drowning victim. It’s awful.
  • Potential dangers include body (arms and legs) entrapment or hair entanglement in drains of pools and spas. Be aware of the risk and encourage friends or pool owners to install drain covers to protect against this. Safe Kids USA is a good place to go for help.
  • Remember that swimming lessons do not provide “drown-proofing” for children at any age.
  • Parents, caregivers and pool owners should learn CPR.

My rule of thumb: never trust infant or toddler swimming lessons as protective against drowning. And never trust that if you sign up and pay for swim lessons that your child will get into the water. Armed with those two pieces of knowledge, you should all have a splendid summer.