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Swimming lessons: tips for parents

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  June 10, 2012 12:28 PM

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Swimming lessons can be a great way to get kids exercising and help them be safer in the water. As the school year ends and summer plans are being made, here are some tips for making those lessons as successful, safe, and fun as possible.

Start young. A good age is somewhere around four years--most kids are ready and able to pay attention, follow directions, and learn the necessary skills around then. Some kids may be ready earlier. A couple of years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics changed their recommendations: they used to recommend lessons for four and up but not earlier, but now they say that depending on the kid and program, lessons should be considered between one and three as it may help children be safer near water. They don't recommend lessons before one; it's fun to play with your baby in the water, but there's no clear evidence that lessons for babies are effective.

Only do it if your child is ready. Some kids are truly terrified of the water--which makes it hard to get anything out of a lesson. It's worth trying a lesson or two even if your child is balking; sometimes curiosity or peer pressure gets them into the water. But if they really don't want to, don't push it. Don't give up on getting them into the water, just do it in a playful, gradual way together at the beach or pool--and then try lessons again in a few months.

Safety is key. Obviously. Make sure there are lifeguards, that safety rules are posted and enforced, and that the appropriate safety equipment is present. The facilities, like locker rooms and showers, should also be clean and safe.

Ask about certifications. Not just lifeguard certifications and first aid and CPR certifications (which are important) but instructor certifications. This doesn't have to be a deal-breaker, as some people can be good instructors without certification (especially when they are good swimmers and good with kids), but if they are certified by the American Red Cross or the YMCA that's great.

Smaller classes are better. They are safer, as the instructor can really watch everyone, and your child will get more attention. The exact ratio you should look for will vary a little depending on your child's age and ability, but somewhere around six kids per instructor is a good ballpark.

Make sure your kid is in the right class. It's best to have him in a class with kids his own ability. If you put him in a class with more advanced kids he may be less safe (and get frustrated), and if he's in a class with less advanced kids he may not learn as much (and get frustrated). Talk to the person in charge of the lessons if you're not sure where your child belongs. 

Look for a class where the instructor gets in the water too. This is especially important for beginning swimmers. It's safer (as you can tell, I'm big on safety), allows the teacher to demonstrate more, and is more engaging for the kids.

Lessons should be fun! Look for classes where the instructors incorporate games, and the tone of the lessons is very positive and supportive.

Remember, always, that swimming lessons don't let you off the hook when it comes to supervising your kids around water. Just because they can swim doesn't mean they can't drown. But swimming lessons do make your child safer--and can make summer more fun for the whole family.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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