Water Safety

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Are you and your child the first ones sprinting to the water or do one or both of you freeze out of fear?  With 71% of the Earth’s surface covered in water, embracing oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and pools, the ability to swim enables you to take full advantage of this natural resource and just might save your life. Evaluating your child’s water safety skills and choosing the right swimming program will help your child enjoy water fun and keep them safe.

Sue Mackie, Executive Director of the United States Swim School Association, offers tips parents can use to determine if their children have the necessary water safety skills for the upcoming summer swim season. The skills progress from infants to older children and adults.

“We recommend introducing children to water when the child is as young as 6 months old, with some programs starting as early as 4 months!” she says. “At this age, our objective is for the child to be comfortable in water and appreciate the experience. We want the child to know how to float on their back and tummy even before walking upright. Basic skills are not the breast stroke!  And I believe it’s important infant swimming (6 months to 12-15 months) is performed in a controlled swimming pool environment.”

The common theme in early swimming lessons is learning "the safer place" as demonstrated in the following progression, also useful for evaluating where your child is with his or her swimming skills:

• 6 to 12 months: breath holding, attempts to pull self from pool/step unassisted, back floating, minor propulsion through water.

• 13 to 24 months: child experiments with play on steps, will put face in without being prompted, may swim off the step or edge without cue, can kick on back and tummy.

• 25 to 36 months: can swim using arms and legs, rolling over or popping up to take a breath, can get themselves back to the wall or step safely.

• 4- to 6-year-olds learn various strokes and work on some endurance.

For 6- and 7-year-olds, the concept of “reach or throw, don’t go” for helping others in need must be understood: Reach out to another with an arm or other device, throw a floating object, but don’t go jumping into the water.

With those basics in hand for getting to safety, evaluate endurance — swimming for distance — and efficiency. “If your child is flailing in water at 5 or 6, the child would benefit from lessons,” Mackie says.

She cautions your child’s success may be formed watching how you behave around water: “Children often learn behaviors from parents, and if the parent is afraid of water, children will see it.” If this is you, she recommends you get lessons first; it is never too late to learn.

Evaluating a swim program takes a little time. “There is often a financial commitment parents make to a swim program, and parents want their children to benefit from staying in the program,” she says. “You must know the personality of your child. Would they benefit most from a fast-paced or more nurturing program?”

Swim schools often have different learning styles, and many offer private and semi-private lessons. Preview a session before enrolling. This lets you watch how the teacher interacts with the children and their parents. You want to get feedback on what to work on after each session.

Expect classes for the under-3 crowd to be typically 30 minutes with a parent in the water (unless it is a private session) focused on skills such as:

• Acclimation to water

• Rolling over

• Jumping in

• Going to the side

• Getting face wet, and holding breath

• Kicking and arm movements

Mackie recommends CPR-certified instructors with constant supervision and compares learning to swim to piano lessons: “Piano lessons are not one-time events. They are an ongoing commitment where children progress until proficient. In swimming, children can continue to swim team, junior lifeguard or lifeguard.”

Swimming also offers benefits beyond the water. It is helpful for general exercise and social skills. There’s also emerging research from Australia suggesting children who swim at an early age and swim consistently are smarter because the movement helps the brain develop.

While Mackie offers a great deal of insight into the benefits of swimming, she turns serious when discussing potential effects of not learning to swim:

“Our research discovered 511 media-reported drowning incidents involving a child under the age of 18 in the United States between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2014.”

Proper education, she says, is vital to preventing these deaths. As summer approaches, now is the time for evaluating your child’s swimming skills and getting proper education.