Lana Whitehead has been teaching infants to float for about 35 years, so she was more than a little miffed when The Arizona Republic quoted an E.R. pediatrician saying children’s “brains can’t learn and retain the information needed to make their legs, arms and lungs do the job (for swimming).”
Whitehead says respected developmentalists, not E.R. pediatricians, should be the ones to determine when children are capable of learning to swim. “Dr. Stephen Langendorfer, a renowned developmentalist, says from ages one to three, when a child starts upright locomotion, that they are physically and cognitively ready to swim,” Whitehead says. “We had a lot of parents really just furious about that article.”
The controversial statement was one in a string of arguments between swim instructors and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which has been making waves with its claim that swim lessons before the age of four can endanger children.
Valley swim instructors disagree with those assertions, claiming the AAP has no scientific backing for its bold claim. Instructors point to thousands of trained students as swimming proof that children under four can safely learn water survival skills.
As the debate continues, many parents are left confused and uncertain about when to take junior in for swim lessons. At hand are two basic questions: When can children start swimming? And do swim lessons give parents a false sense of security about their children and water? The AAP and swim school instructors offer polar opposite answers.
“The big concern is that parents may be misled and think that their kid learning to swim will prevent them from drowning,” says AAP member and Phoenix Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Jeff Weiss.
SwimKids USA owner Lana Whitehead says reputable swim schools give no such false-safety notion to parents. Whitehead says the AAP statement more or less accuses swim schools by insinuating that young children who take swimming lessons are in some added danger. “The AAP isn’t an educator. They say all this without having done a lot of research,” Whitehead says.
While the AAP policy does leave some room for infant swim programs, many swim instructors feel news coverage of the policy provides too much emphasis on the cutoff age being four years.
MINIMUM AGE OF SWIM
In a glassed tropical pool teeming with swim instructors and toddlers, SwimKids USA coach Bryan Crane follows within a few feet as three-year-old Bekah Reed strokes freestyle from one end of a 25-foot pool to the other, twice.
Crane says he started working with Reed when she was just 17 months old. She’s one of numerous students who have swum lengths of the pool before age four. Wading a few feet behind three-year-old Reed, Crane says he doesn’t understand how an educated pediatrician could claim children under four are not capable of swimming.
“Twenty-month-olds are documented as being able to fall into water, turn over and float on their back,” SwimKids’ owner Whitehead says. “The thing that disturbed me the most about that article was the claim that children are developmentally unable to do this.”
AAP pediatrician Dr. Jeff Weiss acknowledges there may not be a developmental cutoff age for all child swimmers. But Weiss says child development isn’t the real issue. Rather, he’s concerned about parents’ perception of their children as “swimmers.” Weiss suspects swim classes for young children give parents a false sense of security.
“We’re concerned that schools that push for teaching six-month-old kids to swim may in fact be giving kids a false sense of security, that’s primarily the sense of the AAP policy, not that the kids aren’t able to learn how to swim, because they can,” Weiss says.
Weiss suggests that the skills learned at a swim school could do more harm than good by lowering parents’ guards around the water.
“We’ve gotten into a lot of fights with the swimming school people,” Weiss says. “We feel that there’s no evidence that teaching them to swim at a young age would prevent drowning, any more than teaching a kid to cross the street at age two would make him safer.”
Six-year-old Jordan Simon has no idea what the AAP or “developmentalists” mean when she is asked about the rules for the pool. She is looking up at the reporter and standing inside at SwimKids USA, where she’s been swimming since before she could walk.
“We don’t get in a pool when a grown up’s not there, and we have to have sunscreen on,” says Jordan, as if repeating a rule for the one-thousandth time.
Jordan’s mother, Sherry Simon, says her daughter’s answer indicates a safety mindset that is ingrained in responsible swim schools. Children and adults are thoroughly trained that children never enter the pool alone. Simon takes offense to the assumption that parents of young swimmers are somehow less responsible around the water than parents of non-swimmers.
“I’ve never agreed with that AAP statement. It’s a little frustrating. Who knows why they do that,” Simon says. Her daughter, 6, and son, 9, both compete on swim teams, and began floating at SwimKids USA at around 17 months.
“That supposed false sense of security could only be stupidity,” Simon says of any swim parent not supervising their child. “Even though she’s six and swimming well, I would never leave her alone. At nine years old, I would never leave him alone,” Simon adds.
Simon thanks early swim lessons for giving her children a survival skill as well as a jump ahead in competition and hours of family bonding time.
“Last year was Jordan’s first year on a swim team, swimming 25 meters across the pool at age five. Would she be doing that if she just started learning to swim across the pool at age four?”
MORE FLIPPER POINTING
Dr. Weiss says the AAP isn’t out to shut down swim schools. They’d just like to keep parents levelheaded about what “swim lessons” really mean for this age group.
“If you look at our statement on swimming you’ll see that we recommend swimming for children ages five to 12, so the issue is not all children, everywhere,” Weiss says of the AAP policy.
“It’s not strong science. There’s not tremendous evidence that shows swimming is dangerous for kids (younger than four). It’s more that we’re not supporting it because there’s no evidence that it works to prevent drowning,” Weiss adds.
“We have this concern, though it’s not proven, that kids who get swim lessons at an early age may not be supervised properly,” Weiss says. He points to Web sites like Infantswim.com, which he says demonstrate the dangerous mentality that children four and under can swim independently.
At the end of the day, Weiss and Whitehead do land in some similar water. Both agree children should never swim unsupervised. Both are motivated by a concern for children, and both want to prevent drownings. What Whitehead doesn’t understand is why the AAP continues to reaffirm an “unproven” statement about swimmers younger than four.
“There’s obviously no substitute for parental vigilance,” Whitehead says. “I have a fence and a cover for my pool. You do everything you can, but you’ve also got to teach the child the danger and strategies to survive.”
Whitehead says training children to survive is an added layer of precaution, not a move of carelessness. “We teach them to swim, rotate onto their back, float. They can do it really well. We add clothes. That’s a varying condition, or we do it in a different pool or with a different instructor,” Whitehead says.
Whitehead and Weiss also agree that the most proven, reliable method for preventing child drownings is a complete, locking fence with a barrier between the backdoor of the house and the pool.
There is one thing Dr. Weiss wants parents to walk away with: “The message I try to get out is that if you really want your kid to be safe, the most effective strategy — really the only thing that’s been proven to have effect — is a four-sided fence around the pool with a working self-latching gate.” n