16 November 2010

Should babies learn to swim?

Thousands of South African children drown each year. Teaching children to swim is one of the most effective ways of preventing a tragedy. But at what age should they start?


Swimming experts are divided on the best age at which a child should start taking lessons. Some suggest that lessons before the age of four are a waste of time, while others promote lessons from as early as three months.

According to the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of South Africa (CAPFSA), babies who have early aquatic training are not only at less risk of drowning but benefit from superior physical co-ordination, social confidence and mental development, and positive parent-child interaction. However, CAPFSA stresses that certain conditions need to be in place:

  • They recommend that babies should be at least five or six months old, as younger babies’ immune systems are not properly developed yet.
  • The American Academy of Paediatricians (AAP) shares this view but warns that even though older infants are better equipped to cope with normal waterborne germs e.g.cholera, they are nevertheless at risk of infection. Make sure that pools are properly chlorinated to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Pools should also be between 30-32 degrees Celsius. Infants are more prone to hypothermia than adults. They lose heat a lot faster because they have a larger body area in comparison to their body volume.
  • Select the teacher carefully. The session should be enjoyable. Teachers who are in favour of methods of force, compulsion, punishment and threat can do more harm than good and instill a lifelong fear of water.
  • Be particularly careful of anyone who uses excessive submersion. According to the AAP, swallowing large quantities of water in a relatively short period of time can result in a condition known as hyponatremia or water intoxication. This is a potentially fatal condition in which diluted blood passes into the brain cells and can ultimately result in swelling of brain tissue and seizures.
  • The duration of a session should be less than 30 minutes. This is not only because infants cannot absorb information for long periods, but also because exposure for long periods increases their risk of hypothermia.

CAPFSA warns that even with the best training, no young child can be considered 100% water-safe and always needs close adult supervision near water.

Contact number:
Contact the following for names of swimming teachers: CAPFSA               021 685 5208        or Aquatots               086 110 2173       .

(Health24, updated November 2010)

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