Wed, 21 May 2003

How to safely teach your children to swim

Donya Betancourt, Pediatrician,

Parents frequently ask what is the best age to begin teaching their child how to swim. Through the years many studies have been done on this subject, and there is a large body of knowledge that points to the fact that the younger a child learns how to swim the better.

One study done in Russia pursued the belief that babies are born with an innate ability to swim. Putting infants in pools of water and letting them sink or swim tested this theory. The results proved that children are born with an ability to maneuver in water, and when their heads are submerged underwater they have an instinctive physical ability to cut off the access of water to the lungs.

When parents ask me about teaching their children to swim, I ask them: What is the motivation in having their child learn to swim? Often the answer is safety related; the family has a pool or lives near water and they want to prevent fatal accidents from happening, which in my opinion is an excellent reason for wanting a child to learn to swim.

Typically children are ready for the pool as early as six months of age. There are many swimming instructors who teach babies and young children how to be comfortable and safe in the water. These courses put the child in the water and teach them how to float, grab for the side of the pool and feel comfortable with their heads underwater. Children two years old and up will learn about kicking, paddling, breathing and swimming strokes, until they are actually safe and swimming.

In my experience children who take up swimming lessons at an early age are given a great gift of water safety, healthy exercise and confidence building.

The health risks most often associated with swimming are ear and eye infections, which is often due to the water rather than any susceptibility on the part of children to infection. Public pools are to be suspected at all times; the amount of bacteria and chemicals in this environment is always an unknown hazard so proper swimming attire is highly recommended.

Make sure your child always wears eye goggles. Earplugs are also a good idea and if your child is having difficulty keeping water out of his nose, nose guards are also available. Another consideration is the sun; sunburns are always a risk and young children are very sensitive to the ultraviolet sun rays. By all means always use a sun block that has a minimum rating of 20, and if possible full-body swimsuits are very practical apparel.

If your child shows signs of pinkeye and it does not go away over a short period of time it most likely is a case of infection and a doctor should be consulted. When water is stuck in the ear canal the best remedy is to have your child lay on his side and allow the water to drain naturally; always avoid sticking fingers or probing with foreign objects inside the ear canal.

There may be a case when a child cannot hear and complains of pain in his ear. This is often a situation in which earwax has dislodged itself and is blocking the eardrum. If this happens your doctor can evacuate the ear canal with a water cleansing, or determine if your child has an ear canal infection.

Swimming is fun, healthy and a sport that will provide a lifetime of enjoyment for your child and family. My suggestion is to use common sense, protect your child from sunburn, keep a close lookout for infections and never allow your child to play in the water alone. Remember a family that plays together stays together.