CAROLE FELDMAN, Associated Press
BETHESDA, Md. — Mary Ellis belts out, “If you’re happy and you know it, kick your feet,” and the toddlers in her YMCA swim class do just that, some with the help of mom, smiling and giggling at the splashing water.
Among them, Natasha Fox’s 9-month-old, Mary, is a veteran of the pool. She got her first introduction to swimming at 10 weeks. “It’s a massively important life skill,” Fox said.
Giving swimming lessons to very young children does help reduce their risk of drowning, according to research by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “We really couldn’t draw conclusions about what it was about swimming lessons,” said Dr. Ruth Brenner, medical officer for the institute. But she said the risk reduction was significant.
That and other research led the American Academy of Pediatrics last year to say it’s OK to give children as young as 1 swimming lessons. Previously, it had set 4 as the minimum recommended age.
“Not everyone should go out and get their children swimming lessons immediately,” said Dr. Jeffrey Weiss of Phoenix Children’s Hospital, who wrote the pediatrics organization’s policy. “But there may be some beneficial effect.”
As for children younger than 1, there’s no evidence they would benefit from swimming lessons, Weiss said.
Still, “water babies” or “bubble babies” classes for that age group are popular across the country.
The American Red Cross starts its parent and child swimming classes for children as young as 6 months. In some respects, the class is as much for the parent as it is for the child. “It’s a tremendous bonding experience,” said Connie Harvey, who heads aquatics development for the organization. “It teaches parents good safety practices in and around the water.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that nearly 300 children younger than 5 die each year from drowning. On top of that, the agency said, about 3,200 young children visit hospital emergency rooms each year because of near-drownings.
To reduce drowning risks, experts also stress the importance of pool fences and close supervision.
“It’s nice to say you always watch your kid,” Weiss said. “It’s important for people to understand they’re not likely to be able to do that.”
With classes named after fish or other sea creatures, the Metropolitan Washington YMCA also offers swimming lessons for children starting at 6 months. Rubber duckies and plastic boats abound as the babies take lessons with a parent, nanny or other adult.
“It’s like playing in a giant bathtub,” said Bill Kuster, the Y’s aquatics director. Children are taught how to move in the water, how to kick and move their arms, and how to blow bubbles. There are lots of songs and games. The goal is to get them comfortable in the water and teach them what to do if they fall in a pool.
By the end of these water babies classes at age 3, Kuster said, the kids will know how to flip on their back and float.
Ellis says it’s important to get children into the pool before they get a fear of water, and of strangers. She teaches a variety of age groups at the Bethesda Y, and gets satisfaction when she sees children she taught as infants and toddlers make it to the swim team.
Some children take to the water immediately; others not so fast. For Rosemary Cragin’s 2½-year-old son, John, “it’s been a slow evolution for him to enjoy the water.” He had his first lessons at 1½, and Cragin recommends starting children swimming as soon as possible.
At age 3, the Y begins offering classes for children without mom or dad. In the “Pike” class, for example, children ages 3 to 5 learn to paddle on their front, back and side, with and without a flotation device. They learn to pass and catch a ball in the water. But first on the checklist are safety skills, including being able to float on your front and back for 20 seconds and knowing how to protect yourself from the sun.
Kevin Reed, of Kensington, Md., said his goal in giving his 4-year-old son, Ajay, swim lessons was to make him safe. He has watched Ajay go from hanging on to daddy to being in a class without him. Wearing a flotation backpack, Ajay races to Ellis when she calls, trying to grab onto her before the other children in the class. There are other games, too, and the children clearly are having fun.
“My philosophy is it’s never too early and it’s never too late to learn to swim,” Ellis said.
But Brenner cautions that regardless of how many swimming lessons a child — or adult — has had, no one is drown-proof. “Even good swimmers can drown,” she said.
The message, she said, is that “prevention requires a multi-layer approach.” Swimming lessons are one of those layers.