Even kids younger than 4 may be ready for swim lessons

When Paula Archambeau's children were small, she didn't think twice about enrolling them in swimming lessons.

The Pickerington mother of four considered it wise to familiarize her youngsters with water and pool safety issues. "It's so beneficial to them," she said.

Her way of thinking recently was adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a statement this spring urging parents to consider swimming classes for children under age 4.

Previously, the Academy discouraged lessons because advisors feared parents would be less vigilant with their children around water if the youngsters had received swim instruction.

The change in policy came after a study conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that swimming lessons do not increase the risk of drowning in 1- to 4-year-olds and may actually provide a reduction in drowning risk in this age group, said Dr. Sarah Denny. She serves as vice chair of the Ohio Academy of Pediatrics' committee for injury and violence prevention.

It's important to remember that lessons for small children are more about exposing children to the pool than learning strokes, said Denny.

"This is really very introductory," she said. "It's just about getting them comfortable in the water."

When children like the water, it really pays off when it's time to learn to swim, added Archambeau. Her one daughter, who started taking lessons at age 2, had an easier time learning to swim than her siblings who started at 3 and 4.

"They have to have some kind of familiarity with water if you're going to try and teach them to swim," she said.

Lessons for babies and toddlers include songs, bubble-blowing and efforts to get them to put their faces in the water or go under the surface. They also learn to enter and exit the pool safely.

Parents are usually expected to participate in these lessons. If a child is afraid of the water, parents need to try and make it a positive experience, Denny said.

"Kids take a lot of cues from parents," she said. "If they are really fretful and uncertain, parents can help by being confidant."

When children are 3- or 4-years-old, they can start to learn strokes, said Elissa James, metropolitan aquatic director for the YMCA of Central Ohio.

"We have found that swimming development progresses so much quicker if they had that exposure as a young child," she said. "We don't have to coax them into the water."