On Your Health

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Swim Lessons: Start Early, Practice Often

Country singer Granger Smith delivered terrible news last Thursday via Twitter. The father of three announced the tragic death of his three-year-old son, River Kelly, after an accidental drowning at home. It was around the same time last June that the 19-month-old daughter of Olympian Bode Miller and his wife Morgan drowned in a neighbor's pool. 

Sadly, these parents are far from alone. Drowning can be silent and quick and kills nearly 1,000 children every year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which lists drowning as the leading cause of injury-related death among children ages one to four.

The AAP suggests that swim lessons can be beneficial for children and may decrease drowning rates. It’s common for parents to enroll school-age children and preschoolers in swim lessons, but even toddlers and infants can benefit from instruction. Local YMCA locations in the OKC metro have a swim lesson program aiming to get toddlers and infants into the pool at a very young age, starting at just six months.

Aileen Pollock, aquatics director at the Earlywine Park YMCA, says the Y developed this program with extensive research and planning. "A program like this has been in the works for several years," Pollock says. 

Can babies really take swim lessons?

Pollock emphasizes the importance of gradual skill development and progression. "Each stage of swim lessons is broken down into really detailed lesson plans," Pollock explains.

"The earliest stage, for babies six months to three years old, has the parent and child interacting together in the pool. This helps the child get more comfortable in the water and acclimated to being in a pool, and it’s also great for educating the parents. We have several parents who aren’t aware of basic swim techniques or who may not know how to swim, so it’s helpful for them, too."

For the three- to five-year-old age group, children will be in the pool without a parent and will learn more advanced techniques from the instructors, while continuing to focus on safety and awareness.

"Early on, it’s more about teaching safety around water and drowning prevention. Our youngest swimmers learn 'jump-push-turn-grab' and 'swim-float-swim,' which are both techniques even little ones can use," Pollock says.

A cute happy young female girl child baby relaxing on the side of a swimming pool

Are swim lessons really necessary?

In a nutshell, yes. Pollock can’t stress the safety factor enough, and encourages every family to enroll their child in lessons if possible.

"Anybody that has a backyard pool, even one with a fence – there’s always that risk  – and for families without a pool, too. It’s just natural for kids, when they get to a pool or lake, to run toward it," Pollock says. "Some of the first things we cover in our lessons are the importance of first asking for permission from an adult, and being supervised by an adult any time there is water nearby."

If a child does fall into water, having the reflexes and skills learned in swimming lessons can be life-saving. Swim lessons offer peace of mind and lowered drowning risk, in addition to health benefits parents of young children can appreciate.

"With the toddlers, being in the pool at the gym exposes them to a healthy lifestyle," Pollock says. "They see the bigger kids in the pool, and the adult swimmers, and they’re learning this is a life skill and something they can always enjoy."

Pollack continues, "Physically, swimming is beneficial for gross motor skill development in babies. They’re doing the kicking, paddling and floating – all of that is helpful."

A life skill to practice year-round

While swim lessons may be more convenient during the summer, Pollock encourages parents to consider enrolling their child year-round. "It takes longer than a month to develop these skills," she says. "Plus, kids learn at different paces. It’s just like school. If they take a break for a long period, they tend to lose some of the knowledge they’ve learned and often have to start over."

Fortunately, facilities with indoor pools offer a way for families to practice the important skill of swimming any time of year. A YMCA membership can grant families access to numerous Oklahoma City metro locations. For Oklahoma City YMCA locations with aquatics programs, refer to this list, and for other swim lesson options in our area, check out this guide.

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