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When is it best for my daughter to start swimming lessons?

The question: My in-laws have a backyard swimming pool and will be caring for my two-year-old daughter this summer. When can she start taking swimming lessons and how can I keep her safe at the pool?

The answer: Being in and around water is a great way to pass the time during the summer and most Canadians don't have to travel far to find a pool, lake, beach, or water park. Bodies of water however, including backyard pools, can be extremely dangerous for young children.

About 400 Canadians perish each year due to preventable water-related deaths with about 60 of those deaths occurring in children and teens, according to Drowning Prevention Research Centre Canada. For young children, these deaths tend to occur around the home with infants drowning mostly in bathtubs and toddlers falling into swimming pools.

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Almost always, drownings in preschool infants occur when there is a brief lapse of supervision, something that can happen in the blink of an eye. In my experience, this often occurs when there are multiple adults at the pool or lake, each assuming that someone else is watching the kids.

As a former competitive swimmer and swimming instructor, I am a big proponent of introducing children to the water from an early age. Both the Canadian Red Cross and the Royal Life Saving Society of Canada offer excellent programs starting at the preschool level. Programs for the youngest swimmers involve parents and tots in the water together then they gradually progress to more structured lessons where basic water skills are taught in a safe, fun environment.

Remember, however, that although there are many benefits to swimming lessons including strength, balance, agility, coordination and breath control, research has not shown preschool swimming lessons to prevent drowning in this youngest age group. Water survival skills such as being able to float independently and the ability to "doggy paddle" a short distance are not typically developed until children are at least four, even if they have been taking lessons since they were infants. For some youngsters, familiarity with the water may lead them to be over-confident in a pool or beach setting, putting them potentially at even higher risk. The take-home message is that preschool children should be kept within arm's reach at all times when they are in or near water, regardless of whether they have taken swimming lessons.

Make sure that your in-laws' pool meets municipal or provincial standards. In particular, backyard pools should be fenced on all four sides with access via a self-closing, self-latching gate. Backyard pools that are accessed directly from the home can be particularly dangerous and adequate fencing must be in place to prevent infants from leaving the house and gaining direct access to the pool deck.

Pool alarms have not been shown to be effective, and may give parents a false sense of security. Properly fitting, government-approved life jackets or personal flotation devices will keep kids afloat in the water, but are no substitution for close supervision. Parents, grandparents, and pool owners should consider taking a basic first aid and CPR course in order to be prepared in case of emergency. Good quality CPR can be life-saving in all age groups.

So by all means, sign up for swimming lessons, slop on the sun screen and enjoy the in-laws' pool this summer, just never let your daughter out of your sight.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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