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Feature Story

August 2019


Pediatricians Urge Communities to Provide Swim Lessons for All

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By Deborah Vence

Communities are being advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to make water safety a No. 1 priority, as well as ensure that swim lessons are accessible for everyone.

"Everyone should have the opportunity to learn to swim," said AAP President Kyle Yasuda, M.D., FAAP. "This is an essential life skill for children, teens and adults. It's an important part of the 'layers of protection' that families and communities can put in place to protect children and teens around water."

Not every community has had the same access to swimming lessons. Historically, barriers have prevented many African-American families from learning how to swim. And today, African-American teen boys have the highest risk of drowning of any age group. Among children ages 11 to 12 years old, black children drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"This is a problem we can solve," said Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., FAAP, chair of the AAP Section on Minority Health, Equity and Inclusion. "Some communities have created innovative solutions to provide free or low-cost swim lessons, and others have developed culturally sensitive lessons, and lessons for children with developmental disabilities or special health care needs. All children should have access to these potentially lifesaving skills."

In 2017, drowning killed nearly 1,000 children, and it is the No. 1 cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 4. African-American children have the highest drowning fatality rates, followed by American Indian/Alaskan native, white, Asian-American/Pacific Islander and Hispanic children.

The AAP published updated recommendations on drowning prevention in March 2019. The recommended "layers of protection" include:

  • All children and adults should learn to swim. Most children will be developmentally ready for formal swim lessons between ages 1 and 4.
  • Not all swimming lessons are created equal. Parents are encouraged to choose a program that meets the family and child's needs and skills, and one that will ensure they have basic water safety skills.
  • Close, constant, attentive supervision around water is important. Assign an adult "water watcher," who should not be distracted by a cell phone, socializing, chores or drinking alcohol. With young children or poor swimmers, the adult should be within an arm's length, providing constant "touch supervision."
  • Wading pools should be emptied immediately after use.
  • Pools should be surrounded by a four-sided fence, with a self-closing and self-latching gate. Research shows pool fencing can reduce drowning risk by 50 percent.
  • Adults and older children should learn CPR.
  • Everyone, children and adults, should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets whenever they are in open water or on watercraft. Small children and non-swimmers should wear life jackets when they are near water and when swimming. Inflatable "floaties" can't be relied upon to protect kids.
  • Parents and teens should understand how using alcohol and drugs increases the risk of drowning while swimming or boating.

"Drowning is fast, silent and can happen even when it is not swim time. It happens to real families, families with good, attentive parents who never thought it could happen to them. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to have many layers of protection to prevent drowning," said Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., FAAP, chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence & Poison Prevention.