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Do Toddlers Need Swim Lessons?

are swim lessons needed

This week, our 18-month old daughter (child #4) started survival swimming lessons. Our teacher has taught all of our children and has been an instructor for 20 years. She teaches them to swim for a count of three, then flip & float for a count of three - until reaching the wall. Each lesson is 10 minutes long.

As expected, our daughter has spent most of this week’s lessons crying (make that screaming) in a combination of fear and anger about the situation. Today, she vomited profusely about 2/3 of the way through the lesson.

Seeing her throw up scared me, and made me question the safety of these lessons. I’ve seen enough online to know about the dangers of ingesting too much pool water, and it’s obvious that she’s been drinking a good bit of water all week long.

I’m torn: keep up with the lessons in an effort to give her a fighting chance of floating should she fall in, or wait until she’s a little bit older in light of the water drinking situation?

Hang in there! Infant swimming lessons can be tough on children and even tougher on parents. Like your family, all of our children have struggled through a swim-float-swim survival swim lessons. Our youngest completed a 6 week program about a month ago. She cried daily for the first couple of weeks, but now floats like a champ.

When I discuss infant swim programs with parents I warn of the crying and screaming that commonly happens in the first two weeks. Often parents quit out of fear of traumatizing their children. In fact the biggest criticism I hear of infant swim lesson is that “now my son won’t even go near the water”. My well practiced response is “Great!”. Part of what children need to learn is a respect for water. We enroll our children in swim lessons to lower their chances of drowning and to teach them the skill of swimming. I’m not hoping for Olympic gold medal swimmers - I’m looking for safety. What you don’t want is a toddler who thinks he can swim but can’t. This is a dangerous combination especially in areas like Orlando that are covered with lakes, pools and retention ponds.

Recently, there have been many stories on “secondary drowning”. These stories are hard to scientifically interpret as “secondary drowning” is not a defined term. I view these to be cases of water aspiration. These children aren't drinking excess water they actually inhale water into their lungs during active play in pools. Enough water inhaled and they essentially drown. Fortunately, life threatening aspiration events are rare in neurologically normal children. I discussed this issue with a seasoned pediatric emergency room physician from Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital. He agreed that cases of significant water aspiration were rare. He nor I have cared for a child with “secondary drowning,” but we both have lost patients to drowning.

I would argue that a 4th child needs swim lessons. If your family is like ours, we will spend a large portion of our summer in our pool. Our youngest will play on the steps, walk around the edge and likely fall in. Most of our older children are old enough to open our pool safety fence, but they don’t fully understand the importance of re-closing it. Frankly, it worries me just thinking about it. Swim lessons don’t drown-proof our kids but basic floating skills and a healthy respect of the water should help.

Read more about The Gift of Swimming - an Orlando Based Charity.


Follow up 1 month later

The bottom line? My husband and I agreed that it would be wise to continue her lessons as suggested. When I first wrote you, our concern was not for her happiness (we didn’t mind her crying over the lessons, as we knew the sadness would pass and the tears would be worth her safety), but rather we were concerned by the amount of pool water she was ingesting as a result of so much crying. The “dry drowning” posts that were all over the internet had heightened our concern.

I talked with our teacher about our hesitation to keep going with the lessons, and she shared the ways she’d monitor our daughter’s safety during each 10-minute session. We decided to stay the course, but to take the lessons one day at a time and to focus more on floating than swimming (face out of the water vs. face in the water) until our daughter was more cooperative in the arms of her teacher.

I wrote to you after lesson 4. By lesson 7, the crying stopped. By lesson 12, our daughter would hop off my lap and walk to the edge of the pool when it was her turn to swim. Today, I literally had to hold her back from making a bee-line to the teacher; she could hardly wait her turn! She now enters the pool with a big smile with her arms waving in excitement, and is fully cooperative. It has been a little over a month since her first lesson, and attached is a video clip to show you her progress. It’s grainy, as I didn’t want to get too close and distract them from their work, but she’s getting it.


Thanks much for your reply that nudged us toward sticking with the lessons.



Written June 2014 by
Gregory Gordon MD, Orlando Pediatrician






gregorygordonmd.com is intended to help parents understand the needs and behaviors of children. The information presented in the site is the opinion of Gregory Gordon, M.D.and does not reflect the opinion of his partners. This website is owned exclusively by Doctors insights LLC. The advice in this site does not apply to all children. Always consult your healthcare provider for your individual needs.

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