Children should begin swimming lessons at age one, new AAP advice

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

Children should begin swimming lessons at age one according to the American Academy of Pediatrics in updated water safety guidelines released last week.

"Drowning is the single leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4," says Dr Sarah Denny lead author of the policy statement, "Prevention of Drowning" published in Pediatrics.

"Many of these deaths occur when children are not expected to be swimming or when they have unanticipated access to water. Toddlers are naturally curious; that's why we must implement other strategies, such as pool fencing and door locks."

But while the risks to young children are more obvious, it might surprise parents that teens are the next highest group at risk of drowning . "Adolescents can be overconfident in their swimming abilities and are more likely to combine alcohol use with swimming – compounding their risk significantly," Dr Denny says.

As such, the AAP's new policy document outlines steps families should take at each stage of their child's life, with swimming lessons a key focus.

"Research has found that swim lessons are beneficial for children starting around age one, and may lower drowning rates", said co-author Dr Inda Quan. "Learning to swim is a great family activity," she continues, noting that programs should also teach 'water competency' -  the ability to get out of the water if your child ends up in the water unexpectedly.

  • Infants

The academy does not recommend infant swimming classes as there's currently no evidence that infant swim programs for babies under one lower their drowning risk. "Infants this age may show reflex "swimming" movements but can't yet raise their heads out of the water well enough to breathe," they say. That said, mums and dads can enrol in parent-child water "play classes" to help babies get used to being in the water.

  • Ages 1 - 4

According to the AAP, research suggests that water survival skills training and swim lessons can help reduce drowning risk for children between ages 1-4. "Classes that include both parents and their children also are a good way to introduce good water safety habits and start building swim readiness skills. If your child seems ready, it's a good idea to start lessons now," they note.

  • Ages 4+

By the time kids turn four, the AAP says most are ready for swimming lessons. "At this age, they usually can learn basic water survival skills such as floating, treading water and getting to an exit point," they advise. "By age 5 or 6, most children in swim lessons can master the front crawl. If your child hasn't already started in a learn-to-swim program, now is the time!"

  • Teens

If your teen hasn't yet learned to swim, the AAP adds that it's never too late to learn. But having lessons and learning to swim isn't enough. "Make sure your teen knows to swim only where there are lifeguards on duty and to never swim alone. Urge them to use the buddy system, even when swimming with large groups of friends," they note. Parents should also teach teens to enter water "feet first".

The AAP's new policy reiterates that swimming lessons don't make children "drown proof" at any age -  and provide just one layer of protection.

"Swim ability must be considered as only one part of water competence and a multi-layered protection plan involving effective pool barriers; close, constant, and attentive supervision; life jacket use; training in CPR and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED); and lifeguards. Children need to be taught never to swim alone and never to swim without adult supervision."

According to the AAP, parents should also monitor their child's progress during swimming lessons and continue until basic water competence is achieved. "Basic swim skills include: ability to enter the water, surface, turn around, propel oneself for at least 25 yards, float or tread water, then exit the water."

Other water safety tips include:

  • Parents and caregivers should never leave children alone or in the care of another child while in or near bathtubs, pools, spas, or other open water.
  • Adults should empty water from buckets and other containers immediately after use.
  • Do not leave young children alone in the bathroom. Toilet locks can prevent drowning of toddlers.
  • When infants or toddlers are in or around the water, a supervising adult with swimming skills should be within an arm's length, providing constant "touch supervision."
  • Even with older children and better swimmers, the supervising adult should focus on the child and not be engaged with other distracting activities.

In Australia, over the past 25 years a total of 965 children under the age of five have died from drowning.

Swimming pools are the leading location for drowning deaths among young children, accounting for 52 per cent of all drowning deaths. This is followed by bathtubs/spa baths (16 per cent). 

Last year, a report by Royal Life Saving Society - Australia, found that three out of four children had quit swimming classes by age eight. As a result, 83 per cent of 12-year-olds couldn't tread water for two minutes - the goal for children by the time they finish primary school - while 40 per cent couldn't swim 50 metres of freestyle or backstroke, and one third couldn't swim 25 metres of survival strokes. 

According to Justin Scarr, the CEO of Royal Life Saving Society - Australia, the year before school starts, about age 4, is a good time to start structured lessons and consolidate foundation skills before the focus turns to stroke development, especially if you have a lifestyle that regularly involves the water.

"Don't stress about the early stages. Infant aquatic classes are all about water familiarisation and should be fun," he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Swimming lessons for your toddler are important to teach them water safety rules and allow them to learn about boundaries but you should not rely on them to keep your little ones safe. Keep Watch."

He also reiterated that if your child is in years 3 to 6 at school and still can't swim then you best start - and urgently. 

Sports voucher programs are available in many states. NSW parents can apply for the Governments $100 Active Kids rebate voucher to assist with the cost of lessons.