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water safety

Nine month-old Griffin Arnot enjoys some play time with his father Will Arnot during a baby swim class at Aquaventures Swim Centre in Vancouver July 10, 2009Jeff Vinnick

It's a jarring image caught on video. An 11-month-old boy clad in blue pyjamas wanders out of a back door that's been left ajar and plods, unattended, toward a swimming pool. Seconds later, he falls in and begins thrashing until he manages to flip onto his back and cry for help.

The video was created to promote Infant Swimming Resource, a one-of-a-kind – and controversial – brand of swimming classes geared toward children as young as six months. The lessons are designed to help kids "self-rescue" if they fall into a pool or get into a dangerous situation in water.

More than 189,000 children from six months to six years old have successfully completed the program in several countries, according to the Denver-based company, which also reports a perfect safety record and nearly 800 documented cases of children who have used the skills to save themselves from drowning. Online testimonials from parents whose children have completed the program say it has changed their lives.

But life-saving and pediatric experts offer a different perspective. They describe the lessons as aggressive, traumatic and even dangerous, fostering a hazardous false sense of security among parents who may be lulled into thinking their children are "drown-proof."

Now, for the first time, some Canadian parents will have the chance to enroll their children in lessons. In the past year, two instructors began offering Infant Swimming Resource lessons in Toronto and Calgary, and three more are going through the process to qualify for the instructor training program.

Recent drownings in Canada, including the death last month of a four-year-old girl who was found floating in a pool near Woodstock, Ont., has helped create a sense of urgency regarding swimming safety.

Harvey Barnett, founder of Infant Swimming Resource, said he was "absolutely stunned with the number of inquiries from Canada" and expects lessons will become more readily available in the months to come.

But should parents be signing up their babies?

"I don't think it's necessary," said Barbara Byers, public education director with the Lifesaving Society of Ontario.

While she's seen the ISR videos and does not dispute the fact babies can be taught to roll onto their backs in water, she worries about the message being sent to parents.

"The question is would that child be able to do that in a situation where they are unsupervised and they fall into the water by themselves?" she asked. "My concern is parents would have a false sense of security."

The Canadian Paediatric Society has said it does not support swimming lessons for children under age 4 that promote drowning prevention.

"There is no evidence that swimming lessons prevent drowning or near drowning in this age group," according to a position statement issued by the society. "Although it may be possible to teach young infants basic motor skills for water, infants cannot be expected to learn the elements of water safety or to react appropriately in emergencies."

Ms. Byers said parents should feel safe putting their babies or toddlers in recreational swimming programs, but warns they should not mistake that for life-saving instruction. Instead, they should simply view it as a fun way to familiarize their child with water.

That's the premise behind Aquaventures Swim Centre, a Vancouver-based facility that offers a variety of lessons for kids. A few years ago, the centre began offering classes to babies at least six months old in response to growing demand from parents.

Owner Sharron Crowley said she would never tell parents such programs have a life-saving element. Rather, they are focused on showing parents how to hold their babies in the water, as well as teaching infants how to position their bodies and some breathing control techniques.

After watching ISR lessons in person, Ms. Crowley said, she has concerns with the teaching methods.

"It's not for the faint of heart," she said. "It's kind of a repetitive series of activities to get this child to roll over. They will let the child throw up. They will let the child scream and cry."

Dr. Barnett, who has a PhD in psychology, dismissed such allegations and said each instructor must follow a rigorous protocol to ensure that not only are the babies kept safe, but that the lessons go at the child's pace and do not disrupt their sleeping or eating patterns. In the one-on-one program, instructors (who are not certified as lifeguards) give children 10-minute lessons five days a week for four to six weeks, focusing on repetitive movements to teach them to turn onto their backs and float in the water. Instructors hold the children while they are in the water.

Dr. Barnett cited a study published earlier this year that found children may benefit from swimming lessons. In the study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, researchers interviewed families whose children had drowned and families of children who lived in the same area and were the same gender and age.

They found that among the children aged 1 to 4 who drowned, only two out of 61 had taken formal swimming lessons, compared with 35 out of 134 of the other children. Researchers did not ask what type of lessons the children had taken.

Dr. Barnett said the study provides solid evidence that ISR can be seen as an effective drowning-prevention tool, in addition to vigilant supervision and other safety precautions.

But even one of the study's authors said the sample size was too small to draw such definitive conclusions.

"I think we can say with confidence [swimming lessons]are not harmful to children. Whether or not they're protective, I think more research would be needed to establish that," said Gitanjali Taneja, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

In the meantime, Canadian parents have already started lining up for ISR instruction.

Holly Murray became an instructor after researching the program for her sons and realizing lessons were not available in Canada. She travelled to the United States to train, where her children also went through the program. Since she started offering lessons last October, she has taught close to 100 children.

While she realizes ISR lessons may not be for everyone, she believes they can offer an important layer of protection.

"I would not trust my son to take care of his own life," Ms. Murray said. "This is no substitute for supervision, but it's just that little bit of sanity … that I don't have to be this panicked mom when I go to the lake."

How to keep kids safe

Drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related death among children, according to national advocacy group Safe Kids Canada, with the majority of incidents occurring in the summer months. Every year in Canada, about 58 children age 14 or younger drown and another 140 are hospitalized for near-drowning. There are several key safety precautions experts say parents must take when their children are in the water:

Keep children age 5 or younger, as well as older children who are weak swimmers, within arm's-length at all times.

Install four-sided fencing around pools.

Wear life jackets on boats.

Don't assume that swimming lessons or survival training means your child is safe in the water – be vigilant and supervise at all times.

Source: Safe Kids Canada