Like many new parents, I took my toddler to the YMCA for swimming lessons. And like most parents, I wondered if that time spent paddling around while wearing a floatie pack made her safer or actually increased her risk of drowning by reducing her fear of water. It's no small question: Drowning is the leading cause of fatal injury in children ages 1 to 4.
Wonder no more. Young children are less likely to drown if they've taken swimming lessons, according to researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Formal swimming lessons for preschoolers reduce their risk of drowning by 88 percent, the researchers found. Amazingly enough, this is the first scientific look into whether early childhood swimming lessons reduce the risk of drowning, although mom listservs abound with questions on the value of swimming lessons vs. "drownproofing" classes. The results were reported in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.
But just playing in the pool isn't enough to make kids safer, injury prevention experts say. Nor are "drownproofing" classes. Fred Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study, told me in an E-mail: "These should be formal swimming lessons where children are actually taught to swim, not the old 'drownproofing' classes."
It turns out that drownproofing is a very hot topic. Lots of Internet videos show babies floating on their backs in pools next to mellow, smiling parents. But swimming instructors go ballistic over the notion that any young child can be drownproofed: Kids just don't have the physical ability or judgment to keep themselves out of trouble. Here's a typical warning, from the Canadian Red Cross: "This learned sequence of floating skills as shown in the video will not protect children from drowning." Two thirds of drownings of children under 5 happen when the children aren't supervised by parents.
Swimming lessons don't replace the need for adult supervision and vigilance, Rivara says. Pools and other bodies of water need to be fenced to protect wandering little ones, and lifeguards should be stationed at pools and beaches where children of any age swim. The fact that children over 5 do drown, even if they're accomplished swimmers, underscores the fact that teaching a child to swim isn't a panacea.
But given this startling new evidence, swimming lessons for the very young sound like a very good idea. I won't be less vigilant when we're at the pool; no reading magazines for me in a lounge chair, alas. But I will feel better knowing that my daughter's lessons in floating, kicking, and stroking aren't just for fun. They can also help save her life.