Swimming Programs for Infants & Toddlers
by Susan Miller, BScN
Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in Canada for children one to four years of age. Families living near water or having a backyard swimming pool know that this proximity to water poses a significant risk for their young children. No parent wants to imagine that their child will ever be involved in a drowning accident. This understandable fear prompts some families to enroll their baby or toddler in a swimming program so that they will be safer around water. Programs or products that claim to make the young child “water safe” should not be trusted. For example, products such as pool alarms can give parents and caregivers a false sense of security.
Many parents wonder when is the right time to start their baby in a swimming program. Swimming programs for infants as young as several months of age are now widely available across Canada. When asked, parents give a variety of reasons for enrolling their baby or toddler in a swimming program. Some want a fun and social activity where they can meet with other parents and their children. Others may be avid swimmers themselves and want to instill this passion in their child. Still others may enrol their child in an infant swim program because other parents are doing it, and isn’t it important for infants to learn to swim early so that they are safer around water? Infant and toddler swimming programs are not designed to actually teach your baby to swim or to “drown proof” your child. They are meant to introduce babies to water, build water confidence and teach water safety to parents and caregivers. If both the parent and child enjoy a low-key swimming program, this is an appropriate choice. Parents and babies in these programs can have a lot of fun together. On the other hand, if the parent is not keen on the locker room routine with a young child or the child indicates after a few weeks that they really do not like this activity, there is no point in continuing. When the child is a little older there will be plenty of opportunities to start a swimming program.
Children do not have the ability to develop basic aquatic locomotion skills until after four years of age regardless of whether they started a swimming program at age one, two, three or four. Furthermore, starting lessons early does not translate into a higher level of proficiency compared with children who start lessons at a later age.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that when instruction “attempts to optimize learning by reducing fear of water, children may unwittingly be encouraged to enter the water without supervision.” No child under the age of four years has the ability to protect or save themselves in deep water. Active adult supervision is the only way to ensure child safety around water.
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) has a position statement on swimming lessons for infants and toddlers and outlines several recommendations and cautions for parents when considering a swimming program. The position statement advises parents to ensure that instructors are trained and qualified in this type of program and that the pool complies with current standards for design, maintenance, operation, and infection control. The CPS concurs with the American Academy of Pediatrics in stating that no swimming program will provide the infant or toddler with survival skills when alone in water.
The Canadian Paediatric Society provides a number of health cautions associated with infant and toddler swimming programs that parents and caregivers should be aware of. If the program is held in a smaller, warmer pool that is specifically for infants and toddlers, there is the risk of fecal contamination since babies are not toilet trained and the warmer water enhances bacterial growth. Swimming diapers provide some but not complete protection from leakages. Diarrhea in an otherwise healthy child can indicate that they may have ingested fecal polluted water. Depending on the temperature of the pool, young children can also be more prone to hypothermia. If they are shivering with chattering teeth or have bluish lips they need to leave the pool and be warmed up as soon as possible.
Most people are aware that babies and young children can develop middle and outer ear infections (otitis media and otitis externa) after playing and splashing in pool water. If your child is prone to middle ear infections (otitis media), attending an indoor swimming program may result in more middle ear infections especially during the winter months. Otitis externa, another type of ear infection also known as “swimmer’s ear,” is an infection of the outer ear canal. There is usually redness and swelling of the outer ear canal and in some cases the pain can be severe. A child who develops bacterial otitis externa may require specific treatment with ear drops and pain relievers for a few days until the pain subsides. If the redness and swelling extend to the entire ear or behind the ear, this may indicate a worsening of the condition and the child should be seen by a doctor immediately.
Water intoxication is a rare but serious condition that can result when too much water is ingested over a short period of time. This condition occurs with adults as well as with children. Babies in a swimming environment may keep swallowing water and this excessive water in their system can alter their electrolyte balance, causing too much water to be retained in all parts of the body. This excessive water also puts pressure on the brain. With water intoxication, a person can have symptoms of restlessness, irritability, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, weakness, extreme drowsiness, vomiting and later, convulsions. In cases where babies have developed water intoxication after being in a swimming pool, symptoms have occurred 30 minutes to a few hours after the excessive ingestion of water. Prompt medical attention is needed to ensure that this condition is treated effectively and recovery is monitored. Parents should be advised during infant and toddler swimming programs to guard against their child swallowing a lot of water.
When considering a swimming program for your infant or toddler, ask about the program activities and the qualifications of the instructors. You may want to observe some of the classes and talk to other parents who have participated with their babies. Most public pools today are very safe and clean but feel free to ask more questions about the water cleansing system and temperature regulation. When you join an infant or toddler swimming program, plan to have fun and socialize with other parents and their babies. On the other hand, if you decide to wait until your baby is much older for this type of activity, this will not put your child at any disadvantage in their peer group when it comes to swimming skills.
Susan Miller, R.N. BScN, is a Perinatal Educator and Certified Breastfeeding Counsellor. She works with prenatal and post-natal families in the Greater Victoria area and is the proud grandmother of Meredith.