Updated swim and pool safety guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are making a splash this summer as the nation's leading child health group reverses its opinion on swimming lessons for toddlers. According to a report published online by the AAP on May 24, 2010, new evidence shows that children ages 1 to 4 may be less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming instruction. In the past, the AAP advised against swimming lessons for this age group because evidence was lacking that lessons prevented drowning or resulted in better swim skills—and there was a concern parents would become less vigilant about supervising a child who had learned some swimming skills.
The studies showing that swim lessons help reduce drowning risk in small children are small, and they don't define what type of lessons work best, but the AAP's new guidance recommends that parents should decide whether to enroll an individual child in swim lessons based on the child's frequency of exposure to water, emotional development, physical abilities, and certain health concerns related to pool water infections and pool chemicals.
"Not every child will be ready to learn to swim at the same age," says Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, lead author of the revised pool safety policy. "Swimming lessons can be an important part of the overall protection, which should include pool barriers and constant, capable supervision."
The AAP does not recommend formal water safety programs for children younger than 1 year of age, pointing out that no scientific study has yet to demonstrate that these classes are effective for reducing drowning risk.
According to the AAP, drowning rates have fallen steadily from 2.68 per 100,000 in 1985 to 1.32 per 100,000 in 2006. But drowning continues to be the second leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, claiming the lives of roughly 1,100 children in 2006. Toddlers and teenaged boys are at greatest risk.
"Children need to learn to swim," Dr. Weiss says. "But even advanced swimming skills cannot 'drown-proof' a child of any age. Parents must also closely supervise their children around water and know how to perform CPR. A four-sided fence around the pool is essential."
The AAP recommends that if you have a pool, install a four-sided fence that is at least 4 feet high to limit access to the pool. The fence should be hard to climb (not chain-link) and have a self-latching, self-closing gate. Families may consider pool alarms and rigid pool covers as additional layers of protection, but neither can take the place of a fence.