When Kids Should Start Swimming Lessons

Young boy learning to swim in pool with teacher
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It's important for every child to know water survival skills as well as how to swim. While swimming lessons can't eliminate the risk of drowning completely, they can keep kids safer around water and help to prevent tragic water accidents, particularly for kids over age 1. Here's an age-by-age guide on swimming lessons for kids, including what to look for and what to expect.

Baby Swim Lessons

Infant aquatic programs are often enjoyable for both parents and babies. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend actual swim lessons for babies younger than 1 because they haven't developed the breathing skills required for swimming, which means they aren't capable of swimming independently.

Additionally, there is no evidence indicating that infant swim classes will reduce their risk of drowning. Nothing can substitute the need for parent supervision around the water. That said, the AAP does recommend classes that engage parent-child duos in water play activities that allow babies the opportunity to get acclimated to being in the water.

When looking for a class for you and your baby, look for programs that employ instructors who are certified through the American Red Cross both as a lifeguard and in first aid/resuscitation—and promise fun in the water rather than the unrealistic (and potentially dangerous) goal of teaching an infant to swim.

The following are some other things to look for in an infant aquatics program:

  • Allows you to observe a class to see if the teaching style meets your needs and looks like something you and your baby would enjoy
  • Creates a low-pressure atmosphere where babies are not forced or encouraged to submerge their heads underwater if they are fearful or hesitant
  • Does not claim to protect infants from drowning or teach them swimming skills
  • Maintains a pool that is clean and at an appropriate temperature
  • Offers a small class size ideally with no more than 10 participants
  • Requires parents to be in the pool during the infant aquatics class

Toddler Swim Lessons

While most toddlers and young children are still not developmentally ready to learn complex swim strokes or swim proficiently on their own, the AAP recommends swim lessons for kids between the ages of 1 and 4. Some studies have found that swim lessons may lower drowning rates among children, including toddlers and preschoolers.

These results could largely be due to the water safety skills the young children learn. However, just like with babies, early swim lessons are not a substitute for adult supervision while in the water.

The AAP notes that drowning is a leading cause of unintentional injury and death in the pediatric age group and that drowning rates are the highest among children ages 12 through 36 months. Whether you start at 2 or 4 or 6 years, your child should eventually learn to swim.

Like infant aquatics classes, classes for kids under 4 should include both parents and children so that they both learn good water safety habits. These classes also are essential in building swim readiness skills, even though many kids aren't developmentally ready to swim independently until after their 4th birthday.

Some parents believe they need to start swim lessons early in order to make sure their kids are fast swimmers. But an older study on children's readiness for learning front crawl swimming showed that whether kids started lessons at 2, 3, or 4 years of age, they learned to swim well at approximately the same mean age of 5 1/2 years.

So, if your child seems disinterested in learning to swim, you may want to stick with water play and start formal lessons when they're a little older. If you try to force swimming with your toddler before they're ready, it's likely to become a frustrating experience for you both.

Swimming Lessons for Kids

Developmentally, most children are ready for formal swim lessons when they are about 4 years old. By this age, most children can coordinate their movements in order to swim strokes and kick their feet, which are the key skills needed for successful swimming. What's more, the AAP stresses that swimming lessons are essential for all children ages 4 and older in order to teach water safety skills.

When enrolling your child in swim lessons, be sure the program has safety-certified instructors. It's also helpful to find a progressive program that allows your child to advance to a new level each time they master a new skill. If possible, observe a class or two first before making a commitment.

The best swim programs provide a combination of instruction and games that not only teach kids vital skills but also are fun.

Learning to swim is an essential life skill and one that you should make a commitment to teaching to your child. Plus, swimming is an excellent way to exercise and often becomes a lifetime sport, even as people age. If your child really seems to love swimming, you can consider joining a swim club or a competitive swim team in your area.

Swimming Pool Safety

When it comes to swimming and other water activities, keep safety in mind at all times. Remember that swim lessons eliminate risk, and kids should always be supervised in the water, whether or not they know how to swim. Even with floaties or a life vest, you should learn to practice "touch supervision," which the AAP describes as a caregiver being within an arm's reach or able to touch the swimmer at all times.

If you have a pool, the most important layer of protection against drowning is a secure fence. It should surround the pool on all four sides, be at least 4 feet tall, have self-closing and self-latching gates, and completely isolate the pool from the house and yard. According to the AAP, fencing that meets these standards is the "most studied and most effective drowning-prevention strategy for the young child." A locking pool cover also provides an extra measure of safety.

You also should take other precautions, including instructing babysitters on pool hazards and showing them how to use protective devices. When you have a social gathering around the pool, have the adults take turns being the dedicated watcher so you ensure there are eyes on the kids at all times. Whenever a child is suddenly missing, check the pool first.

Learn CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and ensure all family members do as well. When the pool isn't in use, put away the pool toys and anything that might attract a child's attention. Ensure the gate or pool barrier is never propped open. By implementing these precautions, you should be able to create a safe environment for children of all ages.

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3 Sources
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Swim lessons; When to start and what parents should know. Updated March 15, 2019.

  2. Denny SA, Quan L, Gilchrist J, et al. Prevention of drowning. Pediatrics. 2019;143(5). doi:10.1542/peds.2019-0850

  3. Blanksby BA, Parker HE, Bradley S, Ong V. Children's readiness for learning front crawl swimming. Aust J Sci Med Sport. 1995;27(2):34-7. PMID: 8521031.