Swimming Lessons for Your Little Fishies: A Look at the Guidance & Recommendations

We recently started taking Maggie to swimming lessons at a swim school (pre-lockdown). We only go to do 3 lessons before restrictions changed again, but it was such a good experience. As I wrote a post about it for Instagram, I thought it might be of interest to some of my readers to see what the current recommendations are around swim lessons. When to start, what the benefits are, as well as any risks or risky behaviour to avoid. So here is a quick summary of Canadian and American recommendations!

Disclaimer: this is not medical advice. This blog is for informational purposes only. Please address any questions about your health or the health of a loved one with your primary care provider.

What’s the 411 on swimming lessons?

There is no doubt that swimming lessons can be beneficial for children across different age groups – one of the biggest reasons for this is that they promote water safety.

Drowning is a sadly common cause of death for children, but it is also a very preventable one. I remember being scared about how much water I put in the bathtub for Maggie when she was little (even though she was in her bath seat) because it doesn’t take much water for a child to be at risk for drowning. That’s why in the bath, experts recommend constant monitoring, parents being at arms reach, and having your child sit up while in the bath tub. When using a bath seat – these recommendations should still be followed!

The same rules remain in a swimming pool (or other body of water) as in a bath tub with little kids – be in arms reach, don’t leave them unmonitored.

So – learning water safety around bigger bodies of water, is obviously extremely important given there is much more water in a pool or a lake/ocean/etc. Swimming lessons can help to teach the importance of water safety – for both you as parents and your kids as they get a bit older. However, the current data about whether swimming lessons for kids under 4 actually helps to prevent drowning is conflicting between the US and Canada.

Swimming lessons for infants and toddlers – will it prevent drowning?

So I’ll start off by saying that the Canadian Paediatric Society does not support the idea of swimming lessons for those under 4 years old for drowning prevention. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential other benefits to swimming lessons for younger children, it just means they state that swimming lessons do not actually help to reduce drowning risks in younger children. This recommendation is based on the lack of evidence behind this assumption.

Now, I could not find a more current recommendation on this by the CPS, so I have to assume they still stand behind this recommendation from 2003. Every article I could find where this recommendation is quoted, even more recently, remains the same. However – if you know that they have indeed changed this, please e-mail me at info@elephantinthewomb.ca

Now interestingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics cites recent research in their recommendations that suggests that swimming lessons for younger children (ages 1 to 4) may actually help reduce the risk of drowning. So this is why I said earlier that there was sort of conflicting evidence on the topic. However, they do not later that swimming lessons may be one of several components contributing to the reduced risk of drowning – this is (I believe) based on a study that was done in Australia from 2013. The study listed several other components that may contribute to reduced risk of drowning such as supervision by an adult and familiarity with water and swimming, among others.

I did a quick search of the literature available on this topic. Lots of studies looking at how parents perceptions change regarding drowning risk after their child takes swimming lessons, but not much on actual risk. There was a recent systematic review (again – a review of multiple studies, so very important when it comes to evidence) from 2020 of the studies that do exist on the relationship between swimming lessons and the related learning and drowning risk. The study suggests that there may be a relationship between drowning prevention and swimming lessons in children’s aged 2 to 4. However – they did suggest that more studies are needed with bigger samples and that gather more specific information relating to age and other factors. Notably hey were only able to review 12 studies.

So, I assume CPS is continuing to err on the side of caution (since there is not concrete support yet for this connection) – which I agree with. The AAP also makes a second statement on their webpage to support that just swimming lessons alone are not enough to reduce risks. I wasn’t able to find anything more recent than the review from 2020 – as I’m sure this type of research is on the back burner in the past year for obvious reasons.

So for now – we cannot yet show with the existing data that there is a decrease in drowning risk related to swimming lessons in children who are under 4 years old. Or at least, that swimming lessons alone is not enough – we still must provide constant supervision to our children who are swimming and keep swim areas blocked off when we cannot supervise.

So, what are the benefits of swimming lessons for children under 4?

Despite the above, there are obviously still many benefits to swimming lessons for children who are under 4 years old.

The Canadian Paediatric Society mentions that swimming lessons in the younger age groups (which should be with parents) can help to promote confidence in the water (which will be important later on) as well as water safety (for the parents at this age), which I mentioned before. The AAP makes the same suggestions.

It is also a great opportunity to bond with your child! I can say that from experience.

What about babies under 1 year old?

Both the AAP and the CPS state that infant swimming lessons are certainly not related to a reduction in drowning risk – simply because they are too young and from a developmental perspective, could not learn these safety responses.

But what about those videos of infants swimming? This is just a reflexive response for the most part. But can your baby lift their head out of the water if they were to start to drown? That is the concern, and why the AAP and CPS do not recommend them for drowning prevention.

That does not mean that you can’t still enjoy parent-child bonding time through swimming lessons with an infant! It still helps to support familiarity with the water. Most swim schools will allow sign up somewhere around 3 months for lessons. So please – enjoy a swimming lesson with your baby or child under 4! Just remember that it is not creating a small risk free swimmer – your baby or young child still needs constant supervision and parental presence.

Swimming lessons & children over 4 years of age

This is when we start to see the most benefit in terms of risk prevention from swimming lessons. Many children at this age are developmentally ready to do structured swimming lessons and understand watery safety a bit more. This won’t be the case for every child – because every child is different and grows at their own speed. Speak to your doctor, NP or paediatrician if you have concerns.

The AAP states that around this age children can learn floating and treading in the water, which are important for safety and drowning risk reduction. They also can/should learn (and are taught in swimming lessons) how to get out of the water on their own. These skills become more solidified as your child ages.

Some tips for safe swimming and finding swimming lessons:

Please feel free to click through any/all of the links provided for more information about how to prepare – for example – your own pool to be safe for children swimming. Each area is different too so make sure to check your local government websites and by-laws to see what regulations exist around pool safety in your neighbourhood.