When Should Kids Start Swim Lessons?

What can kids learn in the water, and when; plus how to keep them safest.

Swim lessons - Little boy with swim goggles near pool
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The short answer: Most children are developmentally ready for swim lessons when they are about four years old. Prior to that, their brains and bodies are less able to coordinate the motions of swimming strokes, so putting them in lessons isn't very effective. It could even be frustrating for them to try to do something that's beyond their abilities.

The longer answer is that some kinds of swim lessons are okay and even helpful for kids under four years old.

Toddlers and preschoolers, ages one to three, can benefit from swim lessons that emphasize water adjustment, safety, and swimming readiness skills. Some small studies have shown that children this age who have formal swimming instruction are less likely to drown, although it is unclear exactly what type of lessons work best. So it's important to remember that swimming lessons are never a substitute for direct supervision anytime your young child is in or near water—even the bathtub.

Best Baby Swim Lessons

For infants (6 months and up), toddlers, and young preschoolers, look for a class that follows American Red Cross and YMCA guidelines. The most important of these are:

  • Instructors should have first aid/resuscitation certification.
  • Parents should be in the pool with their children (and there should be no more than 10 children per instructor)
  • Children should not be required or encouraged to submerge their heads underwater if they are hesitant to do so.

    It's also helpful if instructors are experienced in working with small children, so they understand what is developmentally appropriate and what isn't. Make sure the pool water is not too hot or cold, and that it is kept clean.

    Observe a class and see if the students seem like they are having fun. Are they playing games and singing songs?

    Are they allowed to play with toys? Is the instructor encouraging and enthusiastic (not annoyed when little kids act like little kids)? If you're happy with what you see, give swimming a try with your baby. If she doesn't enjoy it, take a break for a few weeks or months and try again later. It can be challenging if your little one is afraid of the pool, but water safety is a critically important skill for her to learn.

    Best Bigger Kid Swim Lessons

    When enrolling older children in swim lessons, also look for safety-certified instructors and for a progressive program that allows kids to advance through each level as they master new skills. Again, see if you can observe a class. How does the instructor handle kids who are nervous, or who might be misbehaving? Are kids active most of the time, or spending a lot of class time sitting on the sidelines waiting for their turn? You want to see a good mix of instruction and games that kids seem to be enjoying and responding to. Plus, of course, there should always be attention to safety.

    Helping your child learn how to swim can keep him safer when he's around water. Swimming is also a great workout (and a lifetime sport). If your child joins a club or team, swimming offers both an individual and team sports experience.

    Sources:

    Policy Statement: Prevention of Drowning. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison. Pediatrics 2010;126(1).

    Policy Statement. Swimming Programs for Infants and Toddlers. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness and Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention Pediatrics 2000;105(4) (reaffirmed October 1, 2004).

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