How young is too young to teach children to swim? It’s a question that arises each summer as children flock to pools to cool off, since drowning is the second leading cause of death due to injury among U.S. children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that children under 4 aren’t developmentally ready for swimming lessons, but a recent study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine contradicts previous recommendations, suggesting that basic swimming skills can be taught at a young age and may offer children some protection in an emergency situation.
Still, Lois Lee, MD, director of the Injury Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, advocates caution. “I wouldn’t definitively conclude that swimming lessons will absolutely prevent a toddler from drowning, but it might help,” she says. Instead, she stresses the importance of adult supervision, particularly for children under 4. She recommends “touch supervision”—making sure a parent or caregiver is within touching distance of a child whenever she is in the water. “At this age, children should never be allowed to swim unsupervised,” says Lee.
Additionally, parents should ensure that a child can’t accidentally access any bodies of water, including small kiddie pools. In-ground pool fencing should be at least four feet tall, and above-ground pool ladders should be inaccessible if an adult isn’t present. “Pool covers and alarms alone aren’t sufficient protection to prevent toddlers and young children from drowning in a swimming pool,” says Lee.
Swimming lessons, fences and alarms may be helpful, but nothing can take the place of an attentive caregiver. “The tragic thing is that most drowning deaths are preventable with proper supervision,” says Lee.