May 24th, 2010
08:54 AM ET

Most kids under 4 should learn to swim, pediatricians say

By Sabriya Rice
CNN Medical Producer

Parents should consider swimming lessons for most children between ages 1 and 4, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges  in new guidelines on drowning prevention and water safety. The guidance is a change from previous recommendations.

“In light of new research that has revealed that swim instruction for children 1 to 4 years of age may decrease drowning, it is reasonable for the AAP to relax its policy regarding the age at which children should start learning water-survival skills,” the authors say in the report.

Previously, the AAP discouraged swimming lessons for this age group, noting a lack of evidence on whether these children were developmentally ready. The new guidelines, however, do not extend to all children under 4. The AAP still does not recommend swimming lessons before age 1, and says children with motor or cognitive disabilities may not be not be ready for swimming lessons until a later age.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, according to the AAP report. New data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissions finds children between the ages of 1 and 2 represent 47 percent of submersion injuries and 53 percent of fatalities for children younger than 15. In light of those statistics, the CPSC launched Poolsafety.gov as as an educational resource for parents, providing pool safety videos and links to resources on drowning prevention.

“Children need to learn to swim,” say the authors of the Pediatrics report. But they also warn parents not to equate swimming lessons with “drown proofing.” They recommend a multilayered safety approach because, as they note, even children with advanced swimming skills can still drown. Beside swimming lessons, here are three additional things parents can do:

Fence in your pool: Many parents do not consider putting fencing around large inflatable pools,the AAP says,  and because these pools are considered to be portable, they fall outside of many state regulations. The AAP recommends parents install a four-sided fence that is at least 4 feet high if you have any kind of pool in your back yard. The American Red Cross also offers a home pool maintenance class online to help you ensure your pool is set up properly. The two-hour class costs $19.95 and you receive a manual to keep at your home.

Learn CPR: According to the NIH, “all parents and those who take care of children should learn infant and child CPR if they haven't already.” But note that CPR recommendations vary by age group. You can find a CPR training class near you through the American Heart Association, and the National Institutes of Health has guidelines for performing CPR on children between the ages of 1 and 8.

Purchase the proper gear: The AAP warns against using inflatable swimming aids because they can easily lose air and they “are not designed to keep swimmers safe.” On the academy's  website, parents can view a list of the types of personal flotation devices approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.