Swim Programs for Small Fry

Most babies love water. Their exploits in the bathtub and on the beach often send parents scurrying for the video camera. But how and when do you introduce your little one to organized classes?

In the same way that parenting books differ widely in approach and method, so too do swimming programs. Many organizations follow Red Cross guidelines and do not offer formal swimming lessons until the child is three years old. The reason: Children that age tend to be more capable of following directions, have better motor skills, and can blow bubbles, or exhale, in the water.

But in areas of the US where the large number of residential pools can pose an increased risk of drownings, youngsters are often taught much earlier. In southern California, for example, the Australian Swim School chain offers classes for babies as young as three months. Around the country, the YMCA runs a nationally recognized program for infants starting at six months, called Skippers.

So what are the benefits of organized classes for the little ones? What can parents expect them to learn? Does a swim program help make babies and toddlers any safer around the water?

"Any tot program should be viewed as primarily educating the parents," says Laura Slane, associate director of development for aquatics for YMCA of the USA, based in Chicago. She says that in the "Y" program, parents learn to develop a safety routine for children, the proper use of flotation aids, and how to encourage pre-swimming skills.

As for safety, Ms. Slane and other swim teachers say it's unrealistic to expect very young children to swim. But infants should be taught respect for the water, just as they are taught to watch out for cars. One way to do this is to create a whole procedure for going into the water. When a small child gets used to a ritual that includes holding mommy's hand, for example, says Ms. Slane, if he gets to the water's edge and mommy isn't there, "the kid often hesitates and looks around because there's something missing."

Some instructors believe that even very young children can be taught safety skills such as "survival floating" and how to maneuver to the pool edge if they fall in. But much skepticism surrounds these claims, and children's health advocates worry that such instruction creates a false sense of security. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommends against enrolling children in formal swim lessons until at least age 3. (The AAP's latest guidelines make an exception for the YMCA program.) If parents do choose lessons, they should look for a program in which the babies are not totally submerged, because they can swallow water.

Poolside tips for parents:

* Keep goals and expectations realistic. For babies and toddlers, the idea is to "help them explore how to move in the water," says the YMCA's Slane. The purpose should be to capitalize on their natural curiosity and eagerness to try new things.

Depending on age and developmental abilities, some babies may learn to place their faces in water, kick their legs, and paddle their arms; some may learn to go from floating supported on their tummies to their backs. Toddlers may be able to blow bubbles and pick up objects from the bottom.

* Go slowly. Don't rush a hesitant or frightened infant if he isn't ready to get in the water. Wait another week or so and try again. Let things happen in play, don't try to force a swimming agenda.

* Emphasize safety. Children should be told not to go near the water without an adult.

* Buy proper swimwear. Programs should require tight-fitting, leak-proof swim underwear that is worn in place of diapers to prevent sanitary accidents.

* Turn up the heat. Babies and toddlers feel more comfortable and can pay better attention in warm water (around 86 to 88 degrees F. is ideal), says swim teacher Peter Chamberlain in Lexington, Mass.

* Make it fun. Get out the toy boats, foam rings, inflatable alligators, and other games. But do not rely on water wings or "swimmies" to keep a child safe.

* Repeat yourself. Consistency is key. Babies learn by repeating the same action over and over.

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