Defeating Drowning With the 'Flip and Float'

Does throwing your fully clothed toddler into a pool sound crazy? Not if it will save his or her life.

For a growing number of parents in Houston and around the country, survival swim classes teach children from 6 months to 4 years old how to rescue themselves after falling into a swimming pool.

It's known as the "flip and float" strategy.

Does it work? It depends on whom you ask.

Martha Rutledge tried this recently at a class in Houston. Her 2-year-old, Ana, was dropped into the pool and quickly flipped herself onto her back and floated.

"It's scary to watch them go under," Rutledge said, "but she's doing great."

The goal of the program is to teach toddlers to float long enough for help to arrive, or make their way to the side of the pool so they can hold on to the edge.

"By teaching the back float, they can fall in the water, roll over, and they can sustain that as long as necessary until a parent comes and finds them," said Tracy Laman, director of the Houston Swim Club.

While effective, the flip and float technique is a last defense against child drowning, Laman stressed.

The first defense is to always have a watchful parent within an arm's reach of a child when near the water. The second is a properly guarded pool -- with a pool cover and a high, locked fence.

She also emphasized that these classes did not make your child "drown-proof," but rather made them "water-wise." "There is no substitute for parental supervision," Laman said.

The class meets for 10 days over two weeks, using repeated messages and floating practice to help the children learn this skill. The children work their way from bathing suits to fully-dressed over the course, passing a final swim test at completion.

Laman said that this was not another activity like gymnastics or soccer. "This will save their lives."

Does It Work?

Not everyone is supportive of the survival classes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released the "Swimming Programs for Infants and Toddlers" recommendation in 2000, which it reaffirmed in 2004.

The recommendation warns that aquatic programs in general have not been shown to reduce the risk of drowning. It also states that before 4 years old, children do not have the motor development skills to swim.

The organization worries that some classes make children and parents feel a false sense of security around the water. It worries that classes could increase the likelihood of children jumping into the water on their own, or that parents may think they don't have to closely supervise their children.

So the message is still unclear about whether or not to teach toddlers survival swimming.

Laman cautions parents that water classes where children are just having fun in the pool are not the same as a survival swim class.

She also warns parents not to use flotation devices such as "floaties" worn around the child's arms, as they give children a false sense of security. The danger is that a child thinks he or she can swim, regardless of whether "floaties" are worn or not.

ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston first reported this story.