It’s official: Swimming should be the first sport a child learns

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this week advises that “Swimming should be the first sport any child learns.” In a study authored by Georgia Dr. W. Steen James the article opens with a tragic story of one of her patients, who drowned at age 3. James then goes on to tell of a water-related scare involving her son when he was a toddler.
Not coincidentally, James’ post comes on the heels of a new AAP policy statement, issued last month, on the prevention of drowning. The statistics in that statement are sobering. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death among children age 1-4 in the U.S. For those age 5-19, it is the third leading cause of accidental death. In all, roughly 1,000 U.S. children drown per year.
There are a variety of steps parents and public officials should take to reduce that number. However, the need to implement those steps would be far less urgent if all children were taught to swim at an early age.
“When he fell into the pool, we had just signed our son up for gymnastics lessons,” writes James. “We immediately started looking for swim lessons, instead. Gymnastics could wait.”
Unfortunately, for far too many parents, it is not a matter of waiting too long to start swimming lessons, but never bothering to do it at all.
James is particularly concerned with minority populations. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a majority (64%) of African American children can’t swim, and 45% of Hispanic children can’t swim,” she reports. “This compares to only 40% of Caucasian children.”
For all of her patients, James recommends parent-child water safety classes beginning at age 1 and formal swim lessons by age 4.
“The goal is not to produce Olympic swimmers,” she tells parents, “but just make sure the child is water safe.”
Parents of a child who cannot swim may tell themselves they will just keep their child away from water. However, citing the CDC again, James warns, “87 percent of non-swimmer youth plan to visit a beach or pool at least once during the summer months, and 34 percent plan to go swimming at least 10 times.”
Regardless of the level of the skill of participants, though, swimming should always be supervised. The AAP’s reasoning for this advice is simple. “Drowning is silent and only takes a minute,” reads the policy statement.
The following are among the tips offered in the statement to parents and caregivers:
1. Never (even for a moment) leave young children alone or in the care of another child while in or near bathtubs, pools, spas, wading pools or a body of water.
2. Be aware of drowning risks in and around the home. Prevent unsupervised access for young children to the bathroom, swimming pool or open water.
3. Whenever infants and toddlers (or noncompetent swimmers) are in or around water, be within an arm’s length, providing constant touch supervision. Even with older children and better swimmers, your attention should be constantly on the child. Recognize that lifeguards are only one layer of protection.
4. To prevent unintended access, install a compliant fence with a self-closing, self-latching gate.
5. Learn CPR and keep a telephone and rescue equipment poolside. Older children and adolescents should also learn CPR.
6. Monitor your child’s progress during swim lessons and continue lessons until water competence is achieved.
7. Any time your young child visits a home or business where access to water exists, carefully assess the premises.
8. All children and adolescents should be required to wear life jackets whenever on watercraft, and you should wear a life jacket to model safe behavior and to facilitate your ability to help a child in case of emergency.
9. Jumping or diving into water can result in devastating spinal injury. You and your child should know the depth of the water and the location of underwater hazards before jumping or diving. The first entry into any body of water should be feet first.
10. When selecting an open body of water in which your children will swim, select sites with lifeguards and designated areas for swimming.
11. You and your child should recognize drowning risks in cold seasons also.
John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist.