Should babies take swimming lessons?

What do ducks, piranhas, and Baby’s future self, around the time they hit about 5 and a half years old, have in common? Scientifically speaking, they’ve all generally got the physical ability to swim. Until that point, though, Baby’s aquatic abilities are a little bit more difficult to pin down.

Before about 5 and a half years old, human babies aren’t thought to be developmentally ready to swim the front-crawl, and a 1995 study shows that starting them in lessons earlier won’t help them reach that milestone any sooner. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 4 aren’t ready to hold their breath voluntarily for a significant amount of time, which is why that is the age when they recommend beginning formal swimming lessons. It’s a younger age than that, though, when children are at the highest risk of drowning – toddlers and teenage boys are the two groups under 18 at the highest risk of drowning.

The risk of drowning is one of the biggest factors that prompts some parents to start their infants in formal swimming lessons early. The other is just the hope of fostering a lifelong love for and comfort in the water. Some swimming centers that advertise infant lessons recommend starting when your child is a newborn, since babies who have the ability to sit up on their own tend to be more resistant to floating on their backs, and children who come in contact with water are vulnerable to drowning at any age. These early childhood swimming lessons tend to fall into one of two categories – either as parent-child classes mostly designed for entertainment and getting children used to water, or as anti-drowning workshops designed to teach children how to respond in an emergency to reduce the risk of drowning. However, all sites warn that no amount of lessons make a child “drown-proof,” and emergency response lessons should not be used as a replacement for adult supervision.

One of the most immediate concerns of early swimming lessons is that babies under 6 months old should not be drinking water since they’re especially sensitive to water intoxication, which can cause seizures, coma, brain damage, and death. Swimming lessons where babies spend time submerged in water carry the risk that they’ll open their mouths and take in too much water. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t take a stance on swimming lessons for children under a year old, but in 2010 relaxed its stance against swimming lessons for children under 4. Instead, they say that there is some evidence that formal swimming lessons between the ages of 1 and 4 can reduce the risk of drowning, but not enough evidence to officially recommend it either.

The bottom line?

Once Baby is old enough that drinking too much water is no longer an issue, swimming lessons, and more specific anti-drowning lessons, are a bit of a judgement call. Families who live near bodies of water may feel more secure knowing their children have an idea what to do in an emergency, even if they’re not real swimmers yet. But that very sense of security is one of the major concerns of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which cautions that even the most active participant in anti-drowning lessons should be watched with the utmost caution to make sure they never have to use them. There have been no studies conclusively proving this anti-drowning training makes a difference, just anecdotal evidence.

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