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Should You Teach Your Baby to Swim?
By Felicia Hodges
“Once the baby uses those lungs, their ability to automatically hold their breaths while submerged begins to disappear. Because of that, the American Academy of Paediatrics discourages teaching infants to swim by forcibly dunking them or submerging them in water.”
You’ve probably seen them on TV: classes of infants clad in swimsuit diapers or only in what Mother Nature gave them, floating effortlessly through the water, looking like little mermaids. You want your child to learn basic water safety, but is tossing your baby into a pool the way to teach him?
“Newborn babies instinctively know not to breathe while their heads are submerged in water,” says Certified Nurse-Midwife Charlene Taylor, who has assisted in more than 50 water births near her Boston, Mass. home. “From what I’ve seen, it seems as if they know how to swim instinctively. Many of them open their eyes and move their limbs and propel themselves forward in the tubs.”
According to Taylor, until the baby’s body is touched by air, all the oxygen they need is delivered via the placenta, not from his or her lung power. “In water births, their new environment is not much different than what they left behind,” she says.
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends the following pool safety tips for families with young children:
- Never leave children unattended near any body of water. In the time it takes you to run to the telephone or turn on the dryer, your child could fall in and drown.
- If you have a pool, separate it from your home with a 5-foot high fence or gate. Use a gate that self-closes and self-latches. The latch should be higher than your child is able to reach.
- Remove toys from the pool after you exit so children aren’t tempted to reach for them.
- Learn Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).
“But once the baby uses those lungs, their ability to automatically hold their breaths while submerged begins to disappear,” says Dr. Brian Scopec, an obstetrician who practices in upstate New York. “Because of that, the American Academy of Paediatrics discourages teaching infants to swim by forcibly dunking them or submerging them in water.” Since there haven’t been many studies to either support or deny this theory, Dr. Scopec says there is really no information on exactly what age the breath-holding instinct disappears all together.
When To Begin Many parents with pools realize the benefits to teaching their children water safety at an early age. Karen Thomas, a registered nurse and mother of two, figured that sooner was better than later when it came to teaching her 2-month-old son, Zachery, how to swim.
“I signed us up for a mother/baby swim class thinking he’d be moving through the water unassisted or at least be able to roll onto his back in case he ever fell in,” she says. “I wanted him to be comfortable around the water because I grew up afraid of it and didn’t learn to swim until I was an adult.”
Instead of swimming, though, she and Zachery played in the water while she held him and sang songs like “Ring Around the Rosie.”
“They had us fall up instead of down so Zachery didn’t even get wet past his chest,” Thomas says.
“That is not too unusual,” says Patricia Ottie, a certified lifeguard and swim instructor at a health club in Fishkill, N.Y. “Most classes for children younger than 3 or 4 are designed to get children comfortable in the water, not teach them to swim. It may even be dangerous to try to teach children younger than that to try to hold their breath.” Such skills as blowing bubbles and holding air in the lungs require dexterity and coordination that children younger than 3 simply do not have, she adds.
What To Teach The key to teaching water safety is adult supervision, Dr. Scopec says. “Infants are so top-heavy that they should be supervised around even shallow water, as they can drown in less than 2 inches of water.” he adds. He cautions parents to always be in the water with a child younger than 6, regardless of the child’s swimming ability. “If you can’t be in the water with them, make sure another watchful adult or a qualified instructor is present.”
When in the water, the important thing is to get the child to relax,” Ottie says. “It will be a lot easier for them once they begin actual swim lessons at age 3 or 4 if they are used to the water or at least don’t have a fear of it.” She suggests that if your child is afraid of the water, you focus on activities that he or she is comfortable with and progress as the child feels ready.
“Never just throw your child in or sneak up and dunk him. It could make him have a fear of the water that he will never be able to conquer,” she says.
Parents Should Learn, Too Since drowning is the second leading cause of death for children between the ages of one and 18, the most important thing any parent can learn about water safety is CPR.
“Nobody ever wants to think about something terrible happening to their child, but if your child does fall in your pool or wanders off at the beach, CPR could save his life,” Dr. Scopec says.
“All parents should take a CPR class,” Ottie says. “It could save their child’s life or at least buy the child more time until professionals arrive or the child can be taken to a hospital.”
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