June 18, 2010 — -- The American Academy of Pediatrics says younger children may benefit from swimming classes, a reversal of its earlier position that recommended against such lessons for toddlers.
New data suggests that early swim training may actually lower drowning rates in children under the age of 4. Since there is no evidence that such training can do harm, the AAP said it revised its position.
For years, the organization had recommended against swimming lessons for children between the ages of 1 and 3 years old. Its position was that children so young were not developmentally ready, and that lessons could give parents a false sense of security and take away a child's natural fear of the water.
"We're no longer against swimming lessons for these younger kids, but we're certainly not saying that everybody needs to rush out and get their kids swimming lessons," Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, the lead author of the Academy of Pediatrics' Policy Statement on Drowning Prevention and pediatric hospitalist at Phoenix Children's Hospital in Arizona, told "Good Morning America."
"Children need to learn to swim," Weiss said in a May statement. "But even advanced swimming skills cannot 'drown-proof' a child of any age. Parents must also closely supervise their children around water and know how to perform CPR. A four-sided fence around the pool is essential."
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Although drowning deaths have fallen steadily -- from 2.68 per 100,000 in 1985 to 1.32 per 100,000 in 2006 -- drowning remains the second-leading cause of death for children aged 1 to 19, according to the AAP.
More than 1,000 children drowned in 2006, and those at greatest risk are teenage boys and toddlers, it added.
Proponents of teaching young children to swim welcome the AAP's new recommendations.
"We think the earlier the better," Michael Meehan, fitness director of the 14th Street Y in Manhattan, told ABC News' health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser.
AAP Against Young Baby Swim Classes
Meehan said the intent of such programs was to expose children to the positive aspects of being in the water.
While some parents believe that their toddlers will benefit from swimming lessons, they go even farther. They have enrolled children as young as six months old in swimming lessons, teaching them to swim even before they can walk.
Clough's son, 9-month-old Henry, was taking classes at the Y. She said the classes would help put her at ease.
"I don't know if I'm comfortable enough to throw him into the water and just let him go, but I would want to know that if he fell into the water, that he would be able to figure out how to do it himself," she said.
Some classes teach babies self-rescue skills. If they do fall into a pool, they are taught to turn over on their backs, and others are taught to cry in order to capture an adult's attention.
The AAP still doesn't recommend classes for babies who are younger than 12 months old. It says there is no scientific evidence proving the efficacy of water-survival programs for infants.