Teaching Your Child to Swim


An Interview with Water Safety Expert, Mario Vittone

To help clear the confusion and conflicting information on the learning to swim process, SwimWays and nationally recognized water safety expert, Mario Vittone, have partnered to answer parents’ most frequently asked questions about teaching their children how to swim. Mario shares our mission to communicate the importance of knowing how to swim and ensuring the most accurate information is shared on the subject. SwimWays asked Mario some of parents’ top questions about teaching children to swim. Below are his answers.Teaching your child to swim

Question: When should my child start learning to swim?

Answer: There are a lot of opinions on this subject, but the American Red Cross Council of First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness (ACFASP) published an advisory in 2009 that answers this question based on definitive research. I agree with their findings. The short answer is that organized “swim lessons” should begin after children are four years old. However, that doesn’t mean that your child shouldn’t be in the pool before then. The ACFASP Advisory states that, “infants and young children may optionally start swim lessons for the purpose of building aquatic readiness and water acclimation on an individual basis any time after the first or second year of life.”

Parents should understand that learning to swim starts with positive exposure and introduction to the water. This rarely ever starts with organized swim lessons. Learning to swim starts with fun in the water! Before your child can learn the basic strokes and become a confident swimmer, they need to acclimate to being in the water and enjoying the experience. Lessons – formal or informal – come after.

Question: Do flotation devices help or hurt new swimmers?

Answer: The answer depends on how you use them. It’s important to make the distinction between toys and swim training aids. Many well-meaning people – even professional swim instructors – often tell parents that the use of flotation devices creates a “false sense of security” in children and shouldn’t be used in swim instruction.

Blanket statements like this ignore the first step in becoming a swimmer: liking being in the water. Your child must feel comfortable and safe in the water first. They should associate the water with “fun.” Without comfort in the water, learning to be good at swimming becomes very challenging.

The American Red Cross describes flotation aids as “useful tools that can help build the confidence of new swimmers,” and even simple pool toys can be used to “help children adjust to the water and help make spending time in the water more enjoyable.*” I agree. Flotation devices from the very simple (like SwimWays’ Baby Floats) to the more advanced (SwimWays’ Power Swimr) can help children build confidence, improve motor skills, and learn techniques until they reach the goal of being confident and capable swimmers.

Question: What about those infant swimming classes?

Answer: Many infant swim courses are billed as an added “layer of protection” in the drowning prevention strategy, but it is important for parents to know that the Red Cross could find no link between teaching infants aquatic self-rescue skills and drowning prevention. In the ACFASP study, they state “no evidence exists that introducing voluntary aquatic skills prior to 15-18 months of age produces more advanced levels of proficiency or drowning prevention.”

It seems intuitive that if an infant can learn to roll on their back and float and cry out for help that they would be safer around water. But as important as some of these courses may feel to parents, and impressive as the marketing videos are, consider what these infants are actually learning. Are they learning that it is ok for them to be alone in the water? Are they learning that approaching the pool edge is ok? And, at least as importantly, is this early exposure to water a positive one, or a negative one?

Evaluate any formalized infant or toddler swim training with these questions in mind. Observe the training firsthand and see if in the beginning of the training there is any screaming or crying. Screaming and crying indicate something other than positive exposure to the water. These indicate that the child is afraid, and that is bad thing, no matter how impressive the videos are at graduation.

Question: When are my children old enough to swim unsupervised with their siblings or friends?

Answer: My first reaction to this question is, “When they are old enough to buy their own pool,” but I realize that may not be helpful. Listen, we all want to keep our kids safe in the water but we also want to give them confidence and a feeling of independence, so some parents – particularly those with backyard pools – feel pressure from their teen children to allow them to swim with siblings or friends without Mom or Dad watching their every move. This is a mistake and here is why:

Kids, particularly teens (and boys more often than girls), play hard. They are natural risk takers and can be just reckless enough to have a problem you haven’t anticipated. Water confidence and solid swimming skills can be completely forgotten when something as simple as an unexpected splash to the face happens at the same time a person takes a breath. An accidental arm strike to the neck during an annoying game of Marco Polo can cause very real problems. Someone has to be out of the water, watching, and ready to respond if needed.

It’s not enough to have the house rule of no pool use if parents aren’t home. Someone has to be watching. So my real answer (not that making them buy their own pool first is a bad idea) is that it’s not so much about their age as it is the “unsupervised” part. If one of your kids is a lifeguard and will act in that capacity while the other kids swim, you can consider it, but personally I would still be near. Lifeguards usually have a backup person close at hand, and your child deserves the same security.

Question: My child is going to a pool party without me. How can I make sure he/she will be safe?

Answer: There are some pretty general questions you will ask, and the answers will give you a sense of how to proceed. How many children will be there, and how many adults will supervise? Will there be lifeguards present? How many? Is this a backyard pool party and if so, what is the condition of the pool? This may make you sound overly protective, but I’ve found host parents usually appreciate the concern if they have taken precautions to create a safe event. I’ve also used these questions to gauge the safety attitude of those hosting pool parties.

Because so many people will be there, pool parties often feel like safe bets to parents. But parties are distracting events by design, and the sense that everyone is watching the water can lead to no one watching the water. Some people engage in conversations, others cook and serve food, the phone rings, and without anyone noticing, suddenly there is a pool full of kids with no one paying attention to them.

Every well-planned and safe pool party should have a water watcher: a responsible and capable adult or trained guard who is committed to watching what is happening in the water, all the time, with no distractions. “Water Watcher” cards are available from the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s excellent website poolsafely.gov. With the card, everyone knows who is paying attention to the pool, and that they are not to be distracted. (A specially colored tee-shirt or hat, a “special” chair that is set apart, or a pile of leis around the watcher’s neck or wrist can act in the same way to differentiate them.)

Do you have any questions for Mario? Connect with him on this blog.

*American Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety Manual – 2009

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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