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Swimming lessons lower drowning risk in toddlers

March 2, 2009 | 11:30 am

Swim1The wisdom of enrolling toddlers and preschoolers in formal swimming lessons has been debated vehemently over the years. Some people believe even babies should be taught to swim to help protect against drowning. Others say swimming lessons too early in life could decrease a child's fear of water and give parents a false sense of security, thus increasing a toddler's risk of drowning. However, until now, there was no scientific data on the protective effects of swimming lessons in children ages 1 to 4.

A long-awaited study published today concludes that swimming lessons for children ages 1 to 4 lowers the risk of drowning. The study, conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, looked at the association between drowning and swimming lessons in children ages 1 to 19 in six states. Interviews were conducted with the families of 88 children who drowned between 2003 and 2005 and with the families of 213 control children who were the same age, gender and lived in the same county as those who drowned.

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, found that among the 61 children ages 1-4 who drowned, 3% had ever taken formal swimming lessons. In contrast, 26% of the children in the control group  had taken swimming lessons. Parent interviews also suggested that children who drowned were less skilled swimmers. Only 5% of them were able to float on their back for 10 seconds compared to 18% of the children in the control group. "From our calculations, we are confident that swimming lessons do not increase drowning risk in this age group and likely have a protective effect," Dr. Ruth A. Brenner, the lead author of the study, said in a news release.

Among children ages 5 to 19, 27% of those who drowned had taken swimming lessons compared to 53% of the control group. This also suggests swimming lessons for older children are protective, but the difference between the two groups was not statistically significant.

Drowning is the second most common cause of death in people ages 0 to 14 in the United States. Although  the American Academy of Pediatrics has refrained from recommending for or against swimming lessons in younger children, the new study may provide grounds for favoring lessons for toddlers. Future studies should be done to clarify the protection afforded to older children who take swimming lessons,  Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a University of Washington pediatrician, said in an editorial accompanying the study.

"Other interventions to prevent drowning are also important, such as pool fencing, use of personal flotation devices, and supervised swim areas. Swimming lessons should not replace these other strategies nor should they substitute for adult supervision and vigilance. However, formal swimming lessons offer an opportunity to make a real difference in communities around the globe to prevent the sound of happy children splashing in the water from turning into the wail of an ambulance siren or the sound of a parent crying in grief."

-- Shari Roan

Photo:  Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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