Pediatricians approve swimming lessons for babies

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) loosened its position on swimming lessons for toddlers younger than 4 years old.

Until now, the national pediatricians group has recommended against swimming lessons for very young children on the grounds that there was no evidence that early aquatic lessons reduced the risk of drowning or actually encouraged proficient swimming skills. What’s more, such programs could give parents and young children a false sense of confidence around water, the AAP said.

But the group’s revised policy statement, published online on Monday, advocates lessons as early as age 1. The AAP cites two recent studies — one by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and another conducted in rural China — suggesting a benefit of early lessons. The American study, which looked at data on drowning deaths between 2003 and 2005, found that among 61 1-to-4-year-olds who had drowned, only 3% had had formal swimming lessons, versus 26% of 134 matched controls.

However, the AAP does not recommend swimming or water-survival lessons for all toddlers. Rather, parents should decide when their child is developmentally ready for swimming. “Because children develop at different rates, not all children will be ready to learn to swim at exactly the same age. For example, children with motor or cognitive disabilities may not be ready for swimming lessons until a later age,” the AAP says.

Parents should choose swimming classes that emphasize water safety and require a parent or other adult to be in the water with the child, according to an AP report, and classes should have at least one instructor for every 10 students.

Drowning was the second leading cause of unintentional injury death among U.S. children between 2000 and 2006. The risk is highest in toddlers and teen boys, according to the AAP policy statement. But the rate of drowning death has been steadily decreasing in the U.S., from 2.68 per 100,000 people in 1985 to 1.32 per 100,000 people in 2006.

The pediatrics group urges parents to reduce drowning risks by installing climb-proof fences around backyard swimming pools and supervising small children at all times while swimming or near water — including pools, bathtubs, toilets and irrigation ditches — and to be aware of pool and spa drains that can trap children’s limbs and hair. “Parents should be reminded that swimming lessons will not provide ‘drown-proofing’ for children of any age,” the AAP says.

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