By Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
BRENTWOOD, Mo. — Early on, the 4- and 5-year-old pupils at Little Fishes Swim School were scared.
Zoe wouldn’t put her face in the water. Neither would Rose. And David? He wouldn’t even dip his toes in the pool.
Months later, all that’s changed. One by one, the three dived into Little Fishes’ warm salt-water pool recently and paddled just beneath the surface like wind-up bath toys.
Ruthie Zarren, instructor and owner of the swim school, has seen this before.
“The kid who wouldn’t put his head under water, all of a sudden doesn’t want to come up,” she said.
Zarren and other swim instructors say that getting children comfortable enough in water to float, paddle about and submerge their faces is a good first step toward protecting them from drowning. But they stress that it’s just a start.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children learn to swim as soon as possible. But the group does not recommend swimming lessons as a primary means of preventing children younger than 4 from drowning. Rather, parents must watch their children constantly.
Look away for a minute, experts warn, and a splashing child could become a sad statistic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 900 children younger than 14 drowned in the United States in 2005, making it the second leading cause of death by unintentional injury for children and adolescents.
For each drowning death, the CDC estimates that four children are rescued but require emergency medical treatment. Many suffer brain damage, ranging from memory problems and learning disabilities to a permanent vegetative state.
“With these little tiny kids, I tell their moms that it’s going to be a long time before they can have cocktails by the pool. They have to be 100 percent vigilant,” Zarren said.
Next summer, Zarren plans to expand her business by hiring certified lifeguards to work at home pool parties and to give advice on creating the safest home swimming environment.
“They’ll teach parents how to scan the water, counting heads, how to figure out which kids might need more attention and where to stand on the side of the pool,” she said.
Meanwhile, Zarren recommends that parents station one adult with life-saving skills on the side of the pool and another in the water during parties.
She urges parents to test the skills of every child at a party to see if they can swim from one end of the pool to the other. Those who can’t should be required to wear a flotation device.
Comfortable in water
Spending time in the water is critical to feeling comfortable in it, Zarren says. And the sooner children are comfortable, the quicker they learn to swim.
“As they get older, you can’t force them to learn to swim, because it’s scary and it’s hard,” she said.
Zarren says babies are comfortable in water at birth because they’ve been living in amniotic fluid for nine months.
“And the longer they are out of it, the more they lose that comfort,” she says.
Babies as young as 6 months may join classes at Little Fishes, if they can control their necks enough to keep their heads above water. Lessons take place in a 4-foot deep, above-ground pool that measures 9 feet by 17 feet and sits in an industrial warehouse.
Instructors use games, toys and songs to get the youngsters splashing water on their faces, blowing bubbles, floating on their backs and even swimming beneath the surface.
Several mothers stood in a half circle in the pool one recent afternoon. One by one, they handed their toddlers to an instructor who led them in a song. She swirled the children around on their bellies, then at a pivotal moment in the song she gently pushed them under water, head and all. Everyone watched the tiny wriggling figures swim-crawl to their moms, before popping up to applause and cheers.
They all looked confused by what just happened. They all sputtered, coughed and spewed water. But not one cried.
The instructors cautioned the mothers ahead of time: “No matter what you feel, you clap and you smile. If they come up and see a horrified expression on your face, they will cry.”
Toward the end of class, Zoe, David and Rose swam under water through a hula hoop, then practiced leaping as high and as far as they could from a submerged position. It’s a useful skill for kids to maneuver to the side of the pool if they unexpectedly drop off into the deep end, Zarren said.
Kelly Vogl of Webster Groves, Mo., watched her son, David, 5, from the side of the pool.
David, she says, is apprehensive about new activities, including learning to swim.
Her younger son, Patrick, 3, is so fearless, that Vogl worries he’ll end up in the deep end before she can get to him. He’s taking classes too.
“I just wanted David to get used to the water, but he’s enjoyed it so much that now we’re looking at making it a sport for him,” she said. “…It’s also given him confidence to do other things on his own.”