Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Teaching Children to Swim: Water Safety Tips

Nearly a year ago, there was an article from Long Beach, California in which there appeared a description of a toddler swimming program. As a feature of the article was mention of a 14 month old boy who could swim the width of a 15 yard swimming pool. There was also a quote from a swim teacher of such children that it might be possible to begin to teach swimming to a child as young as 3 months of age.

Not surprisingly, this is somewhat controversial. The discussion ranges from the possibility for success to the practicality to the physical and psychological effects upon the youngster. No one knows based upon any significant data whether or not attempting to teach a toddler or very young child to swim can in and of itself be harmful. Many authorities believe that the risk of drowning is not decreased by teaching an infant or toddler to swim, and the statistics seem to support this conclusion. While a child may be able to doggy paddle or otherwise propel him or herself through the water while under complete supervision, that doesn't mean that under a less ideal condition, he or she would not struggle and fail. Furthermore, the duration of exercise of a small child, particularly under adverse circumstances, would frequently be inadequate for a self rescue. Finally, if a successful swim in the pool during a lesson instills a false sense of security in a parent or guardian, the result could be catastrophic later.

In other words, a small child simply does not have the judgment to know how to avoid risk. Falling into a body of water, entry into rough water or water with currents, and negotiating unexpected hazards (which include too lengthy of a swim) are notorious precipitating events for a drowning event.

No doubt, early (age-wise) introduction to the water, when properly done, can minimize fears and facilitate learning, but true safety requires good judgment, a certain degree of strength and endurance, and superb swimming skills. Just because a child knows how to swim does not automatically ensure complete safety.

Here are some recommendations for staying water safe, including advice from the Long Beach, California Fire and Lifeguard departments:

  1. Maintain appropriate adult supervision at all times. If it is deemed necessary to have an adult observe child swimmers, then when the adult must leave the area (e.g., for a bathroom break), the children need to be out of the water. It only takes a minute for something catastrophic to occur.
  2. The supervising adult or lifeguard must remain vigilant at all times. Sometimes this is boring or difficult. If the situation requires more than one adult, then add someone.
  3. All pools should be properly fenced in on all sides with a barrier that is at least 5 feet tall. The fencing should not be easy to scale.
  4. Fill all pools to the maximum extent possible in order to bring the water level close to the external (ground) level. The reason for this is to allow a person who makes it to the side of the pool to be able to roll or slide out of the pool without needing to expend a great deal of energy or to have to rely upon upper body strength to pull him- or herself from the water. 
  5. Any gate or door leading to the pool area should be self-closing and self-latching, have panic alarms installed and open outward, and have the latch placed on the poolside out of reach. 
  6. If a life jacket is deemed necessary for the safety of a swimmer(s), do not substitute any air-filled or foam toy or inner tube for this purpose. Life jackets are specifically designed and rated for safety. 
  7. Be a strong swimmer and do, indeed, teach your children to swim. However, the rule that I always teach is that being able to swim does not negate the responsibility for observation and preparedness. In other words, if you would normally observe a child in or near the water, just because he or she can now swim, it doesn't change your diligence. If you felt it necessary to watch and protect your child before he or she learned to swim, you still need to be there. 
  8. Whenever possible, if you are watching a child in the water, be within arm's reach or a quick water entry-and-grab. This is particularly important in water that is deep (e.g., where an adult needs to tread water to remain on the surface), in moving water, and in water where visibility does not allow you to see someone who has submerged.
  9. Adjuncts to rescue include a first aid kit, telephone, emergency contact information, a "reaching pole" and a ring buoy with a rope line attached.
  10. Know the local waters. If there are currents, you are advised to be extremely careful and to keep small children, poor swimmers, and nonswimmers out of the water.

So, teaching small children to swim is probably a good thing for many reasons. However, it is only a small part of the safety package, and in the case of children under the age of 4 to 5, may not be relied upon to confer protection from drowning.

photo courtesy

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Tags: In the Water , Just for Kids

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.