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A Mother's Plea: Not all Swimming Lessons are Equal

Updated: Mar 24, 2019

Considering the recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy -click here for full policy- update to prevent childhood drownings, I want to clarify something I feel is very important. It is now recommended that all children over 1 year of age participate in swimming lessons to reduce the risk of drowning as an additional layer of protection. Most importantly I want you to know: Not all swimming lessons are created equal.

Jackson, 18 months old. 2 days before his accident

At first, I thought about writing an article strictly showing the differences in swim lesson styles, but I am not an expert and should not be speaking as one. I’m just a mom, with a sad story, that begs you to do what I didn’t do. Here is my testimony:

My story begins in January 2014 when I took my almost 2-year-old daughter to parent child swimming lessons at our local family friendly athletic club. We were new to Texas and bought a house with a pool. We thought this would be the best way to prepare her for the summer by helping her be comfortable in the water. She took to swimming very naturally, we called her a “fish”. By that summer, she could swim about 10 feet independently, making her able to get out of our pool by herself. However, looking back on it, she never learned how to float independently.

My daughter swimming independenly at 2 1/2 years old

Our Family, 2015

December 23rd, 2014, our son Jackson was born. After having our two girls, we were thrilled to have a little boy. My husband and I decided our family was complete. His first year went by fast. After his first birthday, I decided to sign Jackson up for the same class his sister took. He was a little younger than she was when she started, but the class had other 1-year old children, so I didn’t think this would be a problem.

Jackson loved the class, just like his sister. He loved playing and splashing in the water with either myself or my husband. We played with balls in the water and blew bubbles; two of his favorite things. We sang songs, danced common toddler songs and used floatation devices to help him “swim independently". We would place him on the edge of the pool and encourage him to jump in to us, allowing him to go under before helping him back up. We went through several rounds of these weekly classes, thinking that we were preparing him for summer.

Jackson with his oldest sister

As summer came, Jackson loved to swim. At 18 months, he was a fast, curious boy. Always on the move. That July, it only took 5 minutes for Jackson to seize an opportunity and find our pool unsupervised. I asked my husband to watch him when I left the room, I always made sure someone had eyes on him. My husband thought he saw him go upstairs with his 4-year-old and 10-year-old older sisters. We have an open concept home with gated U-shaped stairs leading to a big, open game room with all their toys. Them going upstairs to play wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, we made sure the game room was toddler proof. Both of us assumed someone else was watching Jackson, but in reality, no one was.

I’ll never know if he accidentally fell in or jumped in thinking of all the fun he had had in the pool. All I know is that I wasn’t there to catch him, and my heart is forever broken. I can only imagine his fear as he sunk into the water, unable to get into a position to breathe, all alone. By the time I realized Jackson was missing, I found him fully clothed floating face down in the opposite end of the pool. One week later, we said good bye forever as they wheeled him to the operating suite to donate his organs.

Layers of protection would have saved my son. A door alarm would have alerted us when he went outside. A pool fence would have kept him from entering the pool area. A pool net would have stopped him from entering and a surface alarm would have alerted us he was in the pool. But the part I want to focus on for this article is that survival swimming lessons would have saved his life.

The last time I rocked my son

The pain of losing a child is so unbearable, it is hard to describe. It felt like a piece of my heart went missing, a hole in my heart. My arms felt so light, as he was no longer in them. My chest, so heavy. My chest still feels different to this day.

I have spent a lot of time dwelling on all the mistakes we had made. I was devastated, felt completely alone. I had a hard time telling people how I lost my son for fear that they would judge me as a bad, neglectful parent. Then, I joined an online support group. It was there that I learned drowning was the leading cause of accidental death in young children. Why didn’t I know this?! So many similar stories of toddlers wandering away unnoticed for only a few minutes. Why haven’t I heard more about this?

9 months since I had lost Jackson, 8 months pregnant with Asher

Like many parents who have suffered the loss of a child, my husband and I decided we would try for another child. It didn’t take us long to welcome a son, whom we named Asher (meaning "blessed") Jackson. He was born in May 2017. I was sure I’d never meet a more determined child than Jackson until Asher came along. Asher, who never sits still, walked at 8 months old and was running by 9 months. We made changes to our home, a more secure door, a pool net and a fence, but as summer approached my anxiety was rising. I could not bear the thought of losing another child. With his first birthday nearing, I started thinking about swimming lessons for him.

It was difficult to think about, but I figured I had two different options. I could run and hide from my fear and pain and never let him swim to keep him safe. Or I could face my fear head on and have him in lessons. I was ready to sign him up for the same parent child class, thinking that was all that is available for his age. Then, I saw a video on Facebook of a child in a survival swimming lesson. I was interested in learning more, so I asked the support group on Facebook what their thoughts were on these types of lessons. I didn’t want them to be detrimental to my son or make him develop a fear of the water. Well, I was blown away by people telling me how amazing these lessons are. That they are life saving. That’s exactly what I needed. At 11 months, I enrolled Asher in ISR swimming lessons.

They say these lessons are for every child, but not for every parent. Your child will cry, and they will not like it, not at first anyway. But let’s put this into perspective. If you were to hand your child over to a stranger, fully dressed let’s say at the mall, what do you think is going to happen? Your child is probably going to cry, right? My son cries nearly every time I buckle him into his car seat; does this mean I'm going to let him be unrestrained in my car? Absolutely not. I let him cry because it is about his safety. Needless to say, Asher cried. He cried right up until his last lesson. Never at any point was I concerned that he was in pain. The pool temperature was closely monitored. His breathing was closely monitored so he would not breath in the water. At no point did I feel like he was forced to be submerged in the water, it was a very gentle and gradual process. By 12 months of age, he could float independently. And more than that, he could find his float from any position of falling into the pool.

Asher, 12 months old, floating

His first float test was in his summer clothes. I dressed him in a tee shirt, shorts and sandals. I handed him over to his instructor and, you guessed it, he cried, but then something amazing happened. She let him go. He went under the water, turned his body and came back up to the surface in a perfect float. Seeing him there, fully clothed, floating face up had me in tears. It was then that I knew if Jackson would have had these lessons, he would still be with us today. The next test was float fully dressed in winter clothes, shoes, diaper and all. He passed.

(This video was shared with permission of the parents of a 16-month-old fully clothed performing survival swimming methods)

These lessons are not easy, they are a commitment. They are expensive, yes, but losing my son cost us nearly $40,000 out of pocket with all the expenses. In fact, I would have given up everything I own to have kept from losing my son. These lessons are an investment in your child’s future, so they can have a future. They will learn how to swim in weeks, not years like other programs. If you truly cannot afford these swimming lessons, there are many nonprofit organizations that will help you with financial aid scholarships. In fact, I recently opened a chapter of Swim Safe Forever in my community to make these lessons more affordable for families in need.

Lessons are 5 days a week which can be time consuming. Heck, I drove over an hour round trip to get Asher to the pool for his 10-minute lesson. But let’s think about this. Would you help your baby learn how to walk for 30 minutes once a week? No! You need to work on it every day, that is how young children learn. And 10 minutes is the perfect amount of time to keep them from getting too tired in the lesson. Another point to consider. If your child is in a 30-minute class with 5 other children, how much independent swim time are they actually getting with the instructor? Less than 6 minutes. 6 minutes, once a week, is not enough time to effectively learn how to swim.

Today, Asher is 21 months old and in his ISR refresher. Now, he absolutely loves his swimming lessons. He smiles the entire time, counts for the instructor to let him go and gives her hugs throughout his lessons. The only time he cries now is when his lesson is over and it is time to get out of the pool. He is working on what they call “swim, float, swim” which is exactly as it sounds. I am confident that if Asher were to have an aquatic emergency, he would be able to save himself. But between my toddler proof door, self-latching 5-foot pool fence, and pool net, he will NEVER reach the pool alone.

(Asher, 20 months old, learning "swim, float, swim")

Traditional swimming lessons are great for learning stroke technique in older children, but most do not focus on the survival skills needed in this younger age group. Toddlers do not have the cognitive capability to understand how something can be safe and fun in one situation, yet dangerous in another. That is why I believe the parent child lessons Jackson had were detrimental. These lessons gave him a false sense of security in the water. He was not taught to respect the water. The lessons taught him to be comfortable in the water and that it was fun and safe to swim, yet he learned no skills on how to save himself if he entered the water alone. He was never taught how to get to a position to breathe if in the water alone. And in his young mind, every time he jumped in the pool, he had fun, why would he ever think any differently.

Floating is a key component to survival, and it does not require a child to lift their head as the AAP suggests. Children need to learn their own buoyancy and how to get to a life saving float independently; without the aid of a parent or a floatation device. In survival swimming lessons, children are skilled with the ability to turn their body, so they are face up and float until help arrives. Then, when older and as their development allows, they are taught how to turn their body back to a swim get find the exit of the pool.

The AAP has recognized the differences in high quality swimming lessons and they report "a need for a broad and coordinated research agenda to address not just the efficacy of swimming lessons for children age 1 though 4 years but also the many components of water competency for the child and parent/caregiver." Until then, please chose your swim lesson and instructor wisely. Do your research. Check their credentials. While some instructors can become teachers after a few hours of training, other programs take several weeks to learn technique and the theory involved. Make sure they emphasize survival. To me, this includes teaching them how to roll on their back to a float, even if they are fully dressed.

Bottom Line: I wish I had never enrolled Jackson in the parent child lessons. Honestly, I would rather him have been in no lessons than those lessons. Swimming lessons will not make your child "drown proof" as there may be other situations involved in the event (i.e. water temperature, head injury, extended time in the water, etc..) However, given my son's circumstances of only being in the water for 5 minutes, survival swimming lessons would have saved his life. Please chose your swimming lessons wisely.

Jackson loved the water and we encouraged a lack of respect

*Survival swimming lessons (i.e. ISR and Infant Aquatics) are designed for children aged 6 months to 6 years. Older children who cannot swim or float independently should be in a survival swimming lesson prior to any traditional lessons. For financial assistance with lessons, please contact Live Like Jake, Judah Brown Project, and Colt Catalina Foundation as they provide support on a national level. Please, do it for Jackson.

Written by Jenny Bennett

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