a boy with goggles enjoying a pool

Knowing how to swim is a vital skill that all kids should learn. Swimming can help kids build confidence, master a fun activity for both play and sport, and learn safety in the water, which can be lifesaving. But how young is too young to learn how to swim? When it comes to formal lessons, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids wait until age four to start. However, infants and toddlers can participate in "parent and tot" programs that help babies and young children develop comfort in the water.

Introducing children to the water through such programs is a great way to help them overcome fear and enjoy being in the water, which can prepare them for swimming lessons when they are old enough to benefit from them. Here is a by-age guide to the types of water activities that best suit children from six months to six years.

Six Months to One Year
Although babies are considered too young for formal swimming programs, they can benefit from age-specific classes in the water. Many city recreation departments offer low-cost, parent-child aquatic programs for babies and young children to become accustomed to the water. Classes might focus on gentle water games such as:

  • Showing babies how to splash in the water with their arms
  • Holding your baby while you bob around in the water, getting them used to the feel of their body in it
  • Singing songs while twirling slowly as you hold your baby in the pool, keeping their head above water

Some things to remember when taking a parent-child class with an infant include:

  • Always keeping your baby in your arms, or in the arms of the instructor
  • Keeping your baby's head above water--it can be dangerous for children under age three to have their heads submerged
  • Being aware of any water hazards in and around the pool, since an infant can drown in as little as an inch of water in less than 30 seconds

Two to Three Years
While toddlers are still too young for formal swimming lessons, they're more curious and active in the pool at this age. Consider parent-child programs or practice in a pool just the two of you, as long as you're always holding your child. Here are some age-appropriate pool activities to try:

  • Think of fun games that require them to move their arms and kick their legs. For example, bring a ball that floats and have your child reach for it in front of them as you continue to hold them
  • Without submerging your child's head, show them how to put their face partially in the water and blow bubbles
  • Help them to float supported on their back as you hold them up, ensuring that their body stays straight and their head stays above water

By age three, your toddler may be able to initiate some of these games and activities without your prompting. However, they may feel overconfident in the water without yet knowing how to actually swim. Don't leave your child alone in the water--even for less than a minute. Children of this age need constant supervision in the pool.

Four to Six Years
At age four, your child is now developmentally able to learn the skills needed to stay afloat in the water. Now is the time to enroll them in formal swimming lessons. If they still don't have a basic comfort level with the water yet, choose a program that will help develop this. Some programs may allow parent participation during the first class to help ease the transition. Classes targeted at this age group should help kids:

  • Learn how to float without assistance
  • Submerge their heads under water for up to 10 seconds
  • Go from a standing to a swimming position independently
  • Use coordinated leg and arm motions to kick and stroke the water while gliding

Studies have shown that children can learn to swim well around age five-and- a-half, regardless of how young they start swimming lessons. By age six, children can start learning proper swimming strokes. However, they may still overestimate their abilities, so you should ensure that their pool activities have adult supervision.