Infants Learn to Avoid Drowning

PHOTO: Children learning to swimPlayEducation Images/UIG via Getty Images
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When Kim Moore's daughter was two years old, she fell into a sinkhole while walking around a lake in Colorado. Moore's husband was able to pull her out safely, but Moore knew the situation would not have ended well if someone else wasn't around her daughter to help.

"My daughter didn't know how to swim and was not comfortable in the water after that experience," said Moore.

The trauma of the experience prompted Moore, 43, of Lake Orion, Mich., to sign her daughter up for Infant Swim Self Rescue classes.

"In less than four weeks, she was able to save herself fully clothed," said Moore.

For nearly 50 years, behaviorial scientist Harvey Barnett has pushed infants into swimming pools with the hopes that they'd rescue themselves. The program, never fully embraced by pediatricians, aggressively teaches infants as young as six months survival swimming techniques.

Barnett created his program in 1966 after his neighbor's 9-month-old son drowned. To date, the program has nearly 1,000 documented cases of children using survival swimming techniques to save themselves from drowning.

YouTube has shown numerous cases of babies intentionally falling into pools, only to tactically kick their head above water, roll on their backs, and float up to safety. In some videos, parents purposely push their child in the water and watch them rescue themselves.

Drownings are the leading cause of injury death for young children ages 1 to 4, and three children die every day as a result of drowning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 19 percent of drowning deaths involving children occur in public pools where lifeguards are present.

When Moore was unable to find a nearby class for her second child, she decided to become an instructor herself.

"The most fulfilling thing I can do is to watch these children potentially save themselves," said Moore, who has been a certified Infant Swim Self Rescue instructor for nearly a decade.

To be eligible for the class, infants must be able to sit up and roll over, since those are two techniques used, said Moore. The children are taught to kick their head above water and roll on their backs to stay afloat, she said.

But the program, which has grown in popularity nationwide, has been slow to be accepted by major pediatrician organizations.

Before 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended against swimming lessons for children under age 4.

While the Academy has found some benefit to swimming lessons between ages 1 to 4 to prevent drowning, it has loosened but not eliminated its recommendation against infant and toddler swimming lessons.

"It must be stressed that even advanced swimming skills will not always prevent drowning and that swimming lessons must be considered only within the context of multilayered protection with effective pool barriers and constant, capable supervision," according to the 2010 AAP policy statement.

Evidence suggests that children ages 1 to 4 are less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming lessons, but the evidence has come from small studies and it's not clear exactly what type of techniques have been beneficial, said Dr. Mary Evelyn O'Neil, a pediatrician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

O'Neil said she warns parents against intense survival-like swimming lessons before age one.

"Certainly splashing around a pool is fine," said O'Neil. "If they swallow too much water, it can lower their sodium levels in their body and that can be dangerous."

Because each child develops differently, it's difficult to tell which child will benefit from swimming lessons early on, according to the AAP.

"A parent's decision about starting swimming lessons or water-survival skills training at an early age must be individualized on the basis of the child's frequency of exposure to water, emotional maturity, physical limitations, and health concerns related to swimming pools," according to the policy statement.

Dr. Joseph Gigante, associate professor of general pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University, said that he'd recommend infants who are always supervised splashing around and enjoying the water.

"The harm may be the false sense of security that an infant can save themselves at drowning," said Gigante. "Just because they can perform in front of an instructor doesn't mean it can prevent drowning."

But Moore said she has had parents tell her their children have successfully used the technique on their own. Still, she said, the class does not give parents the license to leave their child alone near water.

"We just like to encourage people to take the safety precautions but to also use this as a method," she said.