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Swim Safety (and Fun) for Babies

How to Introduce Your Baby to the Water
How to Introduce Your Baby to the Water
Learning to swim

Splashing in the shallow end is divine, but mere inches of water can be dangerous. Children 12 to 36 months of age have the highest risk of drowning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). That said, there's plenty you can do to protect your child. Rather than rely on one of the strategies below, follow several, or all. Layering on safeguards ensures no slipups.

Stay near
"Always be close enough to lay a hand on your child," explains Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., lead author of the AAP's latest policy statement on drowning prevention. Keep him within arm's reach when near water. Babies can drown in very little water, so be vigilant.

Beware inflatable pools
It's easy for a tot to lean over and tumble headfirst into these soft-sided water spots. Supervise carefully, empty smaller pools after use, and fence off large dunking pools.

Hit the books
Parents should have CPR and basic water-safety training, advises Connie Harvey, manager of aquatics technical development at the American Red Cross Preparedness and Health and Safety Services. Get trained through the American Heart Association (Heart.org) or the American Red Cross (RedCross.org).

Skip the floaties
Both the AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise against air-filled swim aids. They give a false sense of security and can easily be punctured or deflate.

Fence it in
Make sure your home pool is surrounded by four-sided fencing and a childproof gate, Dr. Weiss says.

Baby splashing in water

Thinking about swim lessons? Sign your baby up after her first birthday. Most swim schools teach babies 6 months and older, but the AAP doesn't recommend formal programs until 12 months. Why? There's no proof they're beneficial, and the health risks of swallowing water are greater before 1 year. Instruction for tots older than a year is not only safe but may help prevent drowning, new evidence suggests. Here's the splashdown on swim-school specifics:

What will baby learn in class?
First she'll get used to being in the water. She'll pick up basic skills such as how to kick, blow bubbles, pull with her arms, and get her face wet. Eventually she'll dunk and -- when she's a wee bit older, around 3 or 4 -- take off swimming!

Should she wear a lifejacket?
Not during lessons, Harvey says. "You want her to know what it's like to be in the water without a flotation device." Plus, a vest puts Baby in a vertical position, which is unnatural for swimming.

What kind of class is best?
Seek out small-group lessons with up to ten caregiver-baby pairs. Look for a fun atmosphere with a relaxed, flexible pace. Instructors should be nationally certified by an organization such as the American Red Cross.

Where can I find a good program?
Try your local American Red Cross chapter, YMCA, or parks and recreation department.

Baby standing in water

These do's and don'ts will get your babe in the swim of things.

Start him early.
Even a newborn can take a dip (but make sure not to wet his face, Dr. Weiss says).

Don't flinch.
"Body language says it all," says Lars Merseburg, a founder of Imagine Swimming School, in New York City. If you're relaxed, smiling, and making eye contact, Baby will learn that the water is a safe, fun place to be.

Set the mood.
Be sure the water is more bathtime than brrr (at least 83 degrees), stake out a calm, shallow area of the pool, and make sure Baby's rested. "If swim time interferes with his nap schedule, you can count on tears," Merseburg says.

Don't be pushy.
If he looks scared, ease off. "Take Baby out, tell him it's okay, and try later," advises Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City.

Introduce him slowly.
Hold Baby securely and use a cup to wet his skin so he adjusts to the temperature. Next, ease him in gradually by dipping his feet and the rest of his body--but go no further than chin-deep.

The four fun games below will entertain--and instruct--your bambino.

Motorboat legs
Dangle your baby's feet in the water and gently pull her around.
Benefits: She'll start kicking and get used to the feeling of water resistance.

Follow the leader
Anything from dipping her toes to dunking her nose is a blast when Baby sees you do it first.
Benefit: You'll spur your tadpole to try new things.

First stroke
Hold a rubber duckie just out of reach and coax her to grab and pull it toward her as you hold her from behind.
Benefit: It teaches strokelike motions.

Tummy time
Lay baby on her belly on a foam mat and slowly move it back and forth.
Benefits: Strengthens back and neck and helps her feel secure while floating.

Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.