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Baby Talk: Here’s what all parents should know about swim lessons and water survival

It is the time of year when we enjoy being in the water to cool off and play. Unfortunately, it is also the time of year when preventable drownings and near drownings take the lives of our children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wants everyone to be aware that swimming lessons at any age do not drown-proof a child. Constant adult supervision around water prevents drowning and near drowning.

According to the AAP, “The primary drowning risk for toddlers age 1 to 4 is unanticipated, unsupervised access to water.”

The AAP used to recommend swim lessons after the age of 4 years. Research swayed the APP to change its recommendation to one year. There was growing evidence that if a child was exposed to swim survival lessons before the age of 4, there was a reduced risk of drowning if they fell into a body of water.

Infant survival swimming lessons and infant aquatics programs teach children as young as 6 months how to maneuver themselves so they can float on their backs. This gives them time to scream to call someone to rescue them. They are not swimming; they are surviving. They still need an adult within arms reach any time they are near water.

This is a skill, like any other skill, that some will learn easily; others will have more difficulty.

An important component of these training sessions is teaching the parents that adult supervision is the most vital element of survival in water for a child.

Katie Powers mug shot.jpg
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace.

Terri Lees, who is a Red Cross instructor trainer and sits on the board of its Scientific Advisory Council, says children will not become competent swimmers until the age of 6 or 7. Even then, she says, it is a slow progression.

When you look at how a child advances with both gross and fine motor skills, you understand why she says this.

Gross motor skills are those physical skills involving large body movements. Between the age of 2 and 3, young children walk awkwardly, work on their balance and gradually develop the ability to run, jump and hop.

Children in the 3 to 4 age group will walk up stairs with both feet on a step before proceeding to the next step. Children in this age group are also getting better with their upper-body mobility. They can throw and catch with increasing speed and accuracy.

By the time they reach their fifth or sixth birthday, they are usually experts at running and throwing. They have learned how to coordinate their muscles.

Fine motor skills are necessary for smaller and more precise movements. Two and 3 year olds are learning how to put objects into matching places. They are learning how to color in the lines. Around 3 and 4, children can manipulate zippers, buttons and dress themselves. They progress with these skills slowly.

By the time they are 5, they can dress themselves, draw real pictures, copy shapes and print letters.

Swimming uses almost every muscle in the body. It demands coordinating both gross motor and fine motor skills. The most common of all swim strokes, the crawl or freestyle, is a coordination of muscles from the upper limbs, neck, front trunk, back trunk, lower trunk and lower limbs. A coordination of 27 muscles groups are required for the crawl swim stroke.

Swimming is a skill that is learned. It requires frequent practicing and for some, repetitive coaching or teaching.

What saves the lives of young children in the water? It is having an adult, who can swim, having eyes on them and being close enough to grab them if they are in danger.

Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace. Her column appears every other week in Healthy Living in the Bradenton Herald. Contact her at katie.powers@mmhhs.com.

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