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Steve Christilaw: Start swim lessons at a young age

The numbers are startling.

Between 1999 and 2010 nearly 14,000 Americans age 19 and younger died by accidental drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more startling is the fact that 40 percent of those deaths involved children between 1 and 4 years old.

Which begs the question: At what age should you begin teaching your child to swim?

Younger than you might think.

The American Association of Pediatrics used to recommend that children could safely begin swim lessons at 4, but reduced that age to 1 in 2010 after analyzing statistics that showed that preschoolers who had taken swim lessons had a reduced risk of drowning.

Some argue that teaching infants and toddlers safety skills in the water gives them a false sense of security around water. Experts insist that children have a natural affinity to water and, furthermore, not knowing how to swim has never prevented anyone from drowning.

You now can find programs that begin teaching children as young as 6 months – parent and child programs that sometimes are called “Mommy and Me” classes.

You can find a number of online sources that discuss introducing infants and toddlers to the water and even more that offer tips for teaching kids in general how to swim – and by swim they mean moving through the water.

The experts insist that the majority of infants between 6 months and a year adapt quickly and easily to the water, especially when that introduction is done gently. The goal is to get the little ones comfortable in the water – an easily attainable goal for 6- to 18-month-olds, who retain some memory of life in the womb.

Remember that children’s bodies are different than those of an adult, and those differences present a challenge in the water.

First, a child’s head is proportionally larger than an adult’s, and their arms and legs are shorter.

And, they say, youngsters are less buoyant in the water than adults, with the majority of that buoyancy centered in their lungs. That makes floating a bigger challenge and a skill that generally takes longer to learn. It’s unnerving to try to float on your back while your arms and legs are trying to sink.

No, your child won’t learn the crawl and breast stroke before they can walk. That’s not what these programs teach. But learning to be comfortable in water is a great start.

What’s more, it’s great fun for both parents and children. If you have doubts, hang out at your local YMCA and watch kids being introduced to the water for the first time. Their faces light up as the kids splash and play.

Huge smiles and the sounds of happy giggles are infectious.

The bottom line is that swim lessons are an investment in your child’s safety. Swim lessons are intended for parents as well – a reminder of the important things parents can and should do to help make the water a safe place.

Families with their own pools are reminded of how important it is to keep the pool fenced so that little ones can’t wander in unsupervised. And, of course, the importance of knowing CPR for little ones.

Correspondent Steve Christilaw can be reached at

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