Josh Mayou frantically sprinted toward the pool after hearing a splash from the backyard where his 3½-year-old son, Logan, was playing.
By the time he got there, a fully clothed, soaking wet Logan was climbing out of the pool, presumably using the skills he’d learned during swimming lessons.
“I know we can’t rely on them having all the knowledge to get out of a situation like that, but I truly believe that that helped so much,” said Logan’s mother, Ashley Mayou, of Cedar Park near Austin.
With drowning the second-leading cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14, many organizations offer swim lessons for young kids and even to infants as young as 6 months. Exactly when the lessons should start is a hotly debated topic, but many swim instructors say the earlier the better.
“The more skills, the more experienced they are, the more likely they are going to be able to handle the unexpected fall into a pool,” said Johnny Johnson, a member of the infant and toddler certification committee of the United States Swim School Association, a trade association of about 350 swim schools. “Our parents typically are involved in lessons because they’re concerned with their child’s safety.”
When to start
Some medical experts say that while it’s one thing to introduce a baby to water in a playful environment, it’s quite another to depend on swim lessons for safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend swim lessons before age 4.
“You are risking the perception that that child is safe in the water,” said Dr. Carrie Loutit, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, Calif. “A child that age never has the skills that you can trust.”
Swim instructors tout the safety benefits of starting early, and the Red Cross and the YMCA offer water introduction starting at 6 months.
“I totally disagree that it’s inappropriate for an infant to be exposed to the water,” said Bob Hubbard, president of the trade association. “You’re not drown-proofing them; you are making them water-aware. I would never argue that a child is safe alone in the pool.”
The question of when it’s best to start really depends on the child, said Don Lauritzen, health and safety expert for the American Red Cross. “The parents have to decide when the child is mature enough for the pool environment,” he said.
Learning to be safe
One of the first things children learn at Emler Swim School, where Logan took lessons, is to turn around and kick back to the side of the pool.
“They’re learning to be safe and they’re loving it,” said Jan Emler, president of the company that has four schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and one in Austin.
Most schools in the United States Swim School Association advocate a teaching process in which a child goes through a progression of learning skills, including how to hold their breath, balance and move through the water, Johnson said.
Like learning to walk
“It’s a process much like a baby goes through in learning to walk,” said Johnson, also president of the Swim for Life Foundation and co-owner of a Blue Buoy Swim School in California. “You guide them through the learning process.”
Laura McCavit, 32, of Dallas, enrolled her daughter at 5 months at Emler Swim School. She hoped to make now 1-year-old Ava feel more comfortable around water and be safe when she’s near it. She feels she’s accomplished that.
“She’s never walked to the edge and jumped in,” said McCavit, who believes some skills her daughter learned could help if she accidentally tumbled into a pool. “I think she could figure it out. She could certainly do a hard turnaround and not panic and hold onto the edge.”
Parents say lessons provide not only a fun way to interact with their child, but also leads to better eating and sleeping afterward.
“In my eyes there’s no drawback to it,” McCavit said.