Caya Barefield isn't talking or walking yet, but her mother says the 15-month-old knows how to save her own life if she happens to tumble into a swimming pool or lake.
Caya takes a 10-minute survival swimming lesson every weekday at the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center. She's learned to hold her breath under water, roll over on her back and reach for the side of the pool – skills that have saved children from drowning situations, according to Infant Swimming Resource, a national for-profit company that runs Caya's lessons.
Interest in all types of infant swimming lessons is growing across the country: For instance, the number of students in ISR's classes increased 61 percent from 2007 to 2008, and the number of instructors has more than doubled in the past two years.
While drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children ages 1 to 4, a major pediatric professional group has declined to endorse the program because the group believes very young children won't necessarily benefit.
Jayme Kreitman was the only instructor in Charlotte when she started teaching seven years ago, and now there are four. Kreitman has 66 kids on a waiting list.
Parents who live near water or have pools are especially interested in giving their kids water survival skills. The Bullard family lives on Lake Norman, and they have a pool, too.
Although the doors to their house and their pool gates have alarms, the lessons give 19-month-old Kenan “an extra chance” in a worst-case scenario, says her mom, Pam Bullard. But she adds: “I don't think you can rely on this to save a kid. Adult supervision is still best.”
False sense of security?
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not endorse the lessons: It has said children generally don't have the motor skills, nor the neurological development, to benefit from swimming lessons before the age of 4.
Dr. Marilyn Bull, who chaired the Academy's Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, says the lessons could even induce a false sense of security in parents that could backfire. Bull, a developmental pediatrician based in Indianapolis, says that until children are 8 or 9, they should be supervised and have someone in the water with them.
Furthermore, aquatic programs for toddlers and infants have not been shown to decrease the risk of drowning, Bull said. But ISR, based in Winter Park, Fla., says its methods have saved at least 784 kids from drowning since it started in 1966. Those were cases where parents found their kids floating on their backs, following a lapse in their own supervision, said an ISR spokeswoman.
Before they're afraid
At the Mecklenburg Aquatic Center, on her 16th swimming lesson, Caya Barefield was smiling in the water. Although she flapped around like a cat when she first started taking her lessons, persevering through them taught Caya an invaluable lesson, her mom says. “It taught her a life skill before she learned to be afraid of the water,” Cha Barefield said.
It took Kenan Bullard one month to stop crying at her lessons, but her mom shrugged off her behavior as that of a fussy 19-month-old. She says Kenan enjoys the pool and lake at their home.
Parents sit nearby during the lessons but don't get in the pool to work with their children.
Some feel uncomfortable watching their kids cry through lessons. “I have talked to mothers who sit nervously on the side,” said Charlotte pediatrician Sheila Kilbane. “It seems a bit unnatural.”
Kilbane supports a more interactive approach: “Lessons where parents are in the water with their kids, and it's a playful thing, are good.”
The YMCA offers group lessons for kids starting at 6 months old, and their parents are always with them in the water. The classes use games and songs to help kids adjust to the water. They learn to blow bubbles and to float while assisted, says Jason Quinton, the senior aquatics instructor at the Harris YMCA.
The courses don't purport to prevent drowning, Quinton said.
ISR says it closely monitors kids throughout the course. Even before they are admitted, ISR has nurses review the kids' medical records to make sure they don't have any conditions that could endanger them. Some are denied participation.
Parents must watch their children's lessons. They also have to keep a daily log of what their children eat, when they go to the bathroom and how much they sleep. Kreitman says part of her job is to educate parents – so their children don't have to actually ever use the survival skills.
Sanja Franck signed her 15-month-old son, Jackson, up for the course, recalling an episode from when her sister was 3. She was looking at frogs in a pond one day and fell in. She survived, but Franck never forgot about it.