What is the earliest age that a baby can learn
how to swim? My family has been testing this with my nephew. He was only 6 months old when
we enrolled him in classes with a group called Infant Swimming Resource. Now, of course he’s not “swimming.” babies this young aren’t developmentally ready to move themselves forward through the water. Instead the goal was to teach him to survive. I have to say I was a bit skeptical when I first saw these clips. How could a baby who can’t even walk or talk learn
how to float. I mean, it kind of looks like torture. But before a month had passed, my nephew proved
me wrong. Every day 2 American families lose a child
to drowning. Drowning deaths are declining overall but it is still the #1 killer of kids
ages 1-4, aside from birth defects. And Arizona, where my nephew lives, has a higher
drowning rate than average, which isn’t surprising given that in the Phoenix area, 43% of homes
have a swimming pool. These classes they put my nephew in should really be
the 3rd line of defense. The first is a fence wraps around the pool latches shut, second
is constant supervision. But if those safeguards fail and a baby slips
into the water, it sounds kind of farfetched but the question is what skills, if any, can the baby
use to keep itself alive? That’s where ISR comes in
“It’s completely different than other programs that are out there.”
This is Jennifer, one of my nephew’s instructors. “There’s not a lot of singing and games
even though there’s a ton of positive reinforcement.” She told me that unlike other programs where kids
might play in the pool or use floaties, ISR classes are geared entirely toward preparing
a baby for an emergency situation. The instructor is shaping his behavior through
basic operant conditioning. When he positions his body correctly in a float that behavior
is reinforced with a good breath of air and with her picking him up. They did this every day for a few weeks and
by the end my nephew could put himself into a float after being tipped in face-down.
They also tested him with clothes on because in most drowning situations, the child is
clothed. Now that he’s 1 year old and he’s walking, he’s
enrolled in the second set of lessons, which teaches him to look for the stairs and swim toward them under water, taking breaks to float when he needs air on the way.
So is all of this good for him? Some people worry that this type of lesson
is traumatizing. My nephew certainly doesn’t like the lessons, and doesn’t really like Jennifer.
“If they’re not happy with me, I’m the teacher, I’m the bad guy. But just as long as they’re successful in all the
skills that are being taught.” He never developed a fear of the pool.
And his tears don’t seem that different from the ones that come when he doesn’t want to take a nap. They also keep the lessons to just 10 minutes
a day to reduce any health risks of being in the pool.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says swimming lessons for kids 1 year and up can be
effective in preventing drownings, but they don’t support programs for babies younger
than that. “The water-survival skills programs for
infants may make compelling videos for the Internet, but no scientific study has yet
demonstrated these classes are effective.” What they’re really worried about is that
these classes could give parents a false sense of security – if they made parents even a little
less vigilant, they would do more harm than good.
So the doctors are waiting for more data. But for my family, there’s kind of only one data point that
we really care about right now. The #1 goal is to make sure he’ll
really be tested. But if my nephew does find himself suddenly under water, it won’t be the first
time that he’s had to find his way back up.