My son has almost drowned twice, and both times, it was my fault. He had been frolicking in the shallow end for 45 minutes in both cases. Then I got distracted for a minute, and when I glanced back, he was gone. There were multiple people in the pool with him each time, some within a couple of feet, a few of them relatives—and nobody saw that he had drifted back to where the water deepened and had sunk below the surface. The only reason I noticed was because when I looked for him, he wasn’t there.
These two experiences are among the most traumatic of my life—I still have nightmares—and they were pretty scary for him, too. Thankfully, he was fine, at least physically. But the incidents proved to me that drowning kids don’t call for help; they don’t kick or splash. They just sink and quietly disappear. More American kids die today from drowning than from car accidents, making drowning the leading cause of injury death in kids ages 1 to 4. Even when kids survive a near-drowning, as many as 10 percent suffer permanent neurological damage.
My son took group swim lessons after the first incident. But after the second, I signed him up for private lessons. The absolute best way to prevent him from drowning, I surmised, was to ensure that he learned basic swim skills.
I was wrong. As I discovered when I dug into the literature on childhood drowning, the idea that swim lessons prevent drowning, especially in young kids, is a dangerous one—“part of the problem, not the solution,” says Kevin Moran, a longtime lifeguard and drowning researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a more conservative stance, but it, too, argues that there is not enough evidence to recommend swim lessons for young kids.* A single, small U.S. study suggests that swim lessons make drowning less likely, but they aren’t even close to a panacea, and the notion that knowing how to swim keeps kids safe can paradoxically put children even more at risk.
I know what I’m saying is sacrilege to many readers; research suggests that 68 percent of parents think it best to start swim lessons before a child turns 3, and more than half think swim lessons are the best way to prevent drowning in toddlers. Our local gym has waitlists for infant and toddler classes, and its website touts that the classes teach kids “water safety,” which any reasonable parent would take to mean “drowning prevention.” The American Red Cross states that “the best thing you can do to help your family stay safe is to enroll in age-appropriate swim lessons,” which it starts offering at the tender age of 6 months. Yet the statistics are clear: Swim skills are simply not enough. Two-thirds of kids who drown, believe it or not, are excellent swimmers.
The fact is, young kids don’t learn survival skills in regular swim classes, in part because they can’t. “Mostly, what these lessons do is prepare the child for swimming by making them comfortable in the water—getting their face wet, going under the water—and teaching them some rudimentary skills,” says Barbara Morrongiello, a professor at the University of Guelph in Canada who studies parent safety practices and drowning prevention. There’s nothing wrong with this; if classes foster a love for water play and swimming, that’s great. What’s bad are parents’ assumptions that the classes do more. “Swimming programs for youngsters under 4 shouldn’t really be considered a drowning prevention strategy,” Morrongiello explains.
That’s because the ability to survive a near-drowning typically requires more than just the types of water skills that keep children afloat in normal swim situations. Kids might drown because they’re really tired, have gotten a muscle cramp, or have been injured during water play—and they need to learn what to do in these specific situations to stay safe. Children are also especially at risk after falling into water fully clothed, because clothes make swimming more difficult. Cold water has the same effect. And then there’s the need for panicked, near-drowning kids to stay calm and focused enough to swim to safety and to be able to hold their breath for more than a few seconds, which wee ones can’t usually do. “Swimming competency is but one of the many physical and cognitive competencies needed to prevent drowning,” Moran explains. In other words, knowing the crawl typically doesn’t suffice. (A note to anyone wondering about those viral videos that show babies can be trained to be “drown-proof”: Read this, please. Those videos and claims are dangerous.)
Making matters worse, research suggests that swim lessons can cause parents to become overconfident about their kids’ abilities and watch them less carefully. In a 2014 study, Morrongiello and her colleagues regularly surveyed parents over eight months as their preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) took swim lessons. As the kids acquired more lessons, parents began to believe that their kids knew how to keep themselves safe in potentially dangerous water situations—that they were, for instance, good judges of their own swimming ability and knew to stay away from pools when unsupervised, which aren’t things that swim lessons generally teach. The parents also began to assume that their kids needed less careful watching around water, which isn’t necessarily true, either. (The small study I mentioned above suggesting that swim lessons reduce drowning risk has what are called wide confidence intervals, a statistical sign that it’s impossible to tell just how strong the effect is and that it may vary a lot between kids.) In another study, Morrongiello and her colleagues asked parents to judge how well their kids had mastered various swim skills in their lessons and found that parents overestimated 1 in every 5 skills. (This overestimation of competence tends to be especially bad among fathers.) Some researchers also worry that when kids have had swim lessons, they, too, will lose their natural fear of water and be more likely to, say, jump into the pool without telling anyone.
Yet the last thing we need is more kids frolicking in the water unsupervised. I’m an obvious teaching example, but many parents are lax observers: In a 2009 study, Moran and his colleagues observed families at the beach and found that 29 percent of parents didn’t adequately supervise their kids under 5, and nearly half didn’t adequately supervise their 5-to-9-year-olds. Indeed, a national 2004 survey found that 88 percent of U.S. children who drowned were supposedly being watched at the time—but caregivers get distracted. They talk on their cellphones or to other pool-goers; they read; they eat; they sunbathe. A study of kids who drowned in Washington state found that only 12 percent of preschooler drownings were actually seen by anyone, which suggests that most kids drown with caregivers nearby who are simply not paying close enough attention.
Another thing to consider about swim lessons in young kids—infants especially—is that exposure to chlorine in pools may heighten the risk of respiratory problems such as wheezing, bronchiolitis, and asthma. And when swimming, kids swallow a whopping four times more water than adults do, which isn’t great, because doing so can cause recreational water illnesses including infections and diarrhea (hopefully not in the pool). And if they inhale even a little bit of water into their lungs, they can also sustain lung damage. Most of these outcomes are quite rare—I’m not trying to totally freak you out—but they are things to keep in mind when pondering swim lessons for very young children.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society do not recommend swim lessons for children under 4, but as of 2010, the AAP doesn’t recommend against them, either, noting that “a parent’s decision about starting swimming lessons or water-survival skills training at an early age must be individualized on the basis of the child’s frequency of exposure to water, emotional maturity, physical limitations, and health concerns related to swimming pools.”* Morrongiello points out that there are water competency classes that focus more on drowning-prevention skills, such as Canada’s Swim to Survive program, but they target kids third grade and up because young kids don’t have the strength and stamina to reliably use these skills.
I’m not anti–swim instruction, and I’ll continue with my son’s private lessons (he’s 6 now) because I think they’re wonderful for a number of reasons. It’s important for parents to recognize, however, that a child who knows how to swim is not a child who cannot drown. The AAP recommends that parents remain within touching distance of their kids at all times; I sure wish I had been closer to my son when he went under. The organization also recommends four-sided pool fencing and that parents know CPR. Floaties are great, but they aren’t a talisman, either, because they can get tangled in pool equipment or unstrapped—my sister’s son was once saved by a lifeguard after quietly taking his flotation device off and jumping back into the pool. (And avoid the inflatable ones.) Bottom line is this: “The only way to ensure your child is not drowning,” Morrongiello says, “is by watching them.”
*Update, June 21, 2017: This article has been revised to clarify the AAP’s current recommendation on swimming lessons for children under age 4.