SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — After birth defects, drowning is the top cause of death in children ages 1 to 4. Swim lessons do not make kids drown-proof — it’s just one layer of protection.

Dr. Laura Waters, a pediatrician at Mercy Hospital, said that it’s recommended to start at age 1 or later, based on your child’s readiness. From ages 1 to 4, do parent-child swim classes: recent studies have shown a reduction in drowning risk for this age when taught water survival skills.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend infant swim lessons because it doesn’t lower drowning risk. While they may show reflex “swimming” movements, they can’t yet raise their heads out of the water well enough to breathe. A parent-child water play class to help them get used to being in the pool is okay and can be a fun activity to do together.

By 4, most children are ready for swim lessons, Waters said. At this age, they can learn basic water survival skills, such as floating, treading water and getting to an exit point.

What do you look for when choosing swim lessons?

Don’t just look for programs that teach swim stroke techniques, but those that teach broader water survival competency skills. Waters recommended that parents and guardians look for swim lessons that:

  • Have experienced, qualified instructors.
  • Teach good safety habits in, on, and near water.
  • Teach what to do if your child ends up in the water unexpectedly.
  • Let you watch a class first to see firsthand if it’s right for your child.
  • Require multiple sessions.
  • Provide age-appropriate atmosphere.
  • Include “touch” supervision. An adult should always be in arm’s reach when infants or toddlers are in the water.
  • Maintain water purity.
  • Keep water warm. Hypothermia is a bigger risk for younger children and water should be between 87-94 Fahrenheit for children 3 and younger.

“Unfortunately, your kids are probably going to suck up a bit of that water,” Waters said. “So, you want to make sure it’s OK for them.”