What You Should Know About Survival Swim Lessons

What You Should Know About Survival Swim Lessons

- in Parenting

  • “Survival” swim lessons can be traumatic experiences for a child and do not drown-proof them. Developmentally-appropriate alternatives include layered play-based training with a trusted caregiver involved. Children are typically only ready for this training around 4-5 years old.
  • Children ages 12-36 months are at the highest risk for drowning deaths and most occur in bathtubs or buckets.
  • Supervision, physical barriers, CPR training, and consistent and regular water exposure with a caregiver in arm’s reach are all key to drowning prevention.

Join me at my local fitness center on a weekday afternoon and you’ll witness child after child entering into the pool and a stranger’s arms. Some are anxious, some are eager. Soon, however, a familiar sound begins to echo throughout the cavernous expanse of the tiled room: the sound of a young child screaming out in desperation and fear.  

Careful to watch my own children swimming in the shallow area with me, occasionally I catch sight of a mom at the edge of the water, first holding up her phone to record these precious moments, but then growing increasingly concerned. As mothers, after all, we are wired to respond immediately to these cries. I can almost feel the inner dialogue, their uncertainty about whether they should stop the lesson or trust the “expert” in the water, who’s again and again releasing their baby under the surface only to have them come up sputtering, find enough air to cry out again, then be re-submerged in the water. 

Some of the instructors are more patient than others, and they spend some time to comfort the child or invite them into a brief game before continuing. But these lessons always end the same, with a young child curled in the fetal position on the pool deck, recovering their breath, red-faced and exhausted. It’s all painful to witness. My young children are alarmed and struggle to focus on anything else. In any other circumstance, witnessing someone pushing a child underwater repeatedly, causing them distress, would warrant a report to child protective services. I don’t hear the conversation between the instructor and the parent, but I know the service’s website tells them that crying is normal, that they’re just communicating and the learning process may not always be fun. 

And they are definitely not fun. One parent shared with me that one of her children left the lesson vomiting, while a sibling was already screaming before being pulled into the water by the instructor. This mom forfeited the rest of her purchased sessions.

What each parent is witnessing, and each child is enduring, is trauma. 

Trauma is any experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. As such, the memories of these moments are etched into the child’s psyche and their nervous system. Recently, I edited a memoir for a colleague who recalled her childhood swim lesson at the YMCA in vivid detail. Memories around trauma are some of the longest lasting. Not one client I’ve ever worked with as a coach has ever had difficulty recalling traumatic events, even from very early childhood. If the child isn’t properly supported in their experience, they will relive it over and over again to varying degrees, which affects them for the rest of their life — or until they work with someone to process and heal from it. 

Even if they don’t remember it, their body will. Meagan Smith, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (a body-based trauma healing modality), says:

“From a trauma perspective, the baby’s natural survival mechanisms are being thwarted (the need to reach out) and their instinctual mobilization in the face of danger is being undermined. This survival energy can remain trapped in their nervous system and then manifest in all kinds of negative ways (anxiety, asthma, other illnesses, etc.), even if they have no memory of these swimming lessons. Further, these babies’ sense of safety is being shattered. From birth to age three, the attachment between an infant and their primary caretaker is paramount for their healthy development.” 

In a 2017 report on survival swim training, Birthlight founder Dr. Francoise Freedman writes, “When babies’ signals are ignored and violated at the preverbal stages of development, the hypothalamus, that acts as a control center for stress, regulates the release of cortisol while the amygdala evaluates threats. Since cortisol thresholds are set for life in infancy, if extreme stress is repeated, the practice may result in raised cortisol levels, known to increase feelings of anxiety later in life.”

Today’s parents are anxious.  The sheer amount of available data at our fingertips means that we are never without the ability to learn a new way — -and, unfortunately, to enter a state of fear. The desire to give our children the best foundation possible means that we are constantly readjusting and researching, often triggered by scary or heart-breaking headlines that launch us into wanting to take action. With drowning as the leading cause of injury death in U.S. children ages 1-4, and the third leading cause of unintentional injury death in children and adolescents ages 5-19 years, it’s easy to feel the pressure to do something about it, practically from the moment they take their first breath. 

Enter the Infant Survival-type swim lessons I described above.  Playing directly into our fears, these lessons give us a sense that we are doing the right thing by ensuring that our children have the “proper aquatic skills” to survive. They fail to mention, however, that most of these infant deaths do not occur in a swimsuit inside a temperature-regulated pool, with mom or dad sitting close by, or that these skills are not even retained indefinitely. 

According to the AAP in their recently updated Prevention of Drowning policy, “For the period 2013-2017, the highest rate of drowning occurred in the 0- through 4-year age group, with children 12 to 36 months of age being at highest risk. Most infants drown in bathtubs and buckets, whereas the majority of preschool-aged children drown in swimming pools.”

The AAP also warns: “Aquatic programs for infants and toddlers have not been shown to decrease the risk of drowning, and parents should not feel secure that their child is safe in water or safe from drowning after participating in such programs. Young children should receive constant, close supervision by an adult while in and around water.”

Nevertheless, these swim lessons primarily tout their ability to teach an infant how to roll over in the water, in theory allowing them to take a breath and, “…survive a water accident!” — unless, of course, that accident is actually in a bathtub or bucket. They claim that this result is acquired quickly, in 10-minute lessons multiple days a week for 4-6 weeks. 

However, studies have shown that skills acquired between 12-30 months are largely ineffective at preventing drowning. Prior to two years old, infant swimming abilities are actually reflexive and disorganized, rather than voluntary, because they are unable to raise their heads to breathe during the first two years of life.  They can only swim for short periods due to the fact that they are holding their breath. The consensus seems to be that the typical age for readiness to even begin to acquire and remember aquatic skills is 4-5 years old. 

Remember being the key word — survival swim lessons condition children to react rather than learn and develop psychomotor skills in a logical progression, according to Branden Burns, an American Red Cross Instructor Trainer Educator. “Therefore, once the program ends, the child eventually loses the muscle memory to react in the manner taught in those courses.” So, even after the child survives the traumatic habituation process of survival lessons, they must continue with normal swim lessons anyway. 

I cannot find any study that either promotes the use of or defines the efficacy of survival style swim training. Dr. Freedman points out, “Evidence pro or against drown-proofing is necessarily limited. It would be unethical to submit babies and toddlers to drown-proofing to assess this methodology.”

According to a report by the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, the key elements in drowning cases are:

  1. The victim didn’t realize the danger.
  2. The victim suffered an unexpected occurrence before or in conjunction with entering the water (e.g., fall from height, awkward landing, loss of breath, wind knocked out at landing).
  3. The victim suffered an unexpected experience during submersion such as they couldn’t regain the surface, couldn’t see where they were going, the water was cold, their clothes were heavy, they were deeply submerged, etc.
  4. Following submersion, their skills were inadequate to survival (e.g. they were unable to turn back toward safety, became tired quickly, couldn’t stop and rest/float, couldn’t swim in waves, were unable to roll over and change strokes).

Rolling to their back and floating is not a skill that we can just put in a box and feel safe knowing that it’s enough. But if you’d like to teach them this skill, there are better options!

Like all skills our children learn, they can be conditioned through fear, or they can enjoy the learning process and feel empowered. Countless studies of child developmental stages tell us that young children learn best through play and modeling. The best practices to teach kids new skills are always through repetition, routine and play. Layering skills in a safe and supportive environment is paramount to the well-being of a child. Just as we would never burn our children to teach them that the stove is hot, we don’t serve our children if we attempt to teach them to float by tossing them in the water repeatedly until they get it.

There also are American Red Cross lessons at the same facility we attend. Those classes are filled with games and happy children. The lifeguards take them through a series of steps that allow them to feel comfortable in the water and teach them skills through play, such as pretending to be animals and hopping across the pool, or being splashed by a “magic” ball popping out of the water. The youngest children remain in their caregivers’ familiar and loving arms throughout the lesson.

To be clear, I’m not saying that every time a child cries in the water it’s trauma. Rather, I want to empower you to empower your child by maintaining their sense of safety and autonomy, even when there’s real fear about drowning. Their trust in you to protect them depends on your trust in yourself to act in their best interest. 

Evidence-Based Drowning Prevention:

  • Physical Barriers
  • Supervision
  • Life Jackets (not inflatable armbands or neck rings)
  • Caregiver CPR Training
  • Swim lessons

When my son was 2, his favorite thing to do was to take off running down the sidewalk in our quiet neighborhood once we were outside. That is typical behavior for a toddler. I closely supervised, caught him when he tested limits, educated him at every opportunity, and took precautions so he couldn’t leave the house without my knowing. Hypervigilance is just a part of early parenthood and we each do the best we can, including being very clear with other caregivers when they are going to be responsible for the child, such as when we have to step inside or wish to take a break. 

I fully understand the concern of knowing there’s always a chance we could fail to prevent drowning despite every precaution, supervision, or physical barriers. If you live near a pool or a body of water, investing the regular and consistent time into swimming with your kids and providing them with safe, fun and continued learning experiences is paramount. Don’t let fear and hype overwhelm your own wisdom about what is best for your child. Do the potential benefits of survival swim training outweigh a child’s developmental needs? Not in my opinion. Not when developmentally-appropriate options exist. 


If your child has already attended survival swim lessons, please don’t feel that you did anything wrong — you made what you felt was the best choice for your child. If it upset your child, you may want to help him or her process any trauma experienced, which you can do by helping them tell the story of what happened and how it felt. Provide empathy by sharing what you remember about the lessons and imagining, then sharing, what they were likely feeling and needing from you during the process. You may have to go through this story several times. Validate their perspective of what happened. You can help them imagine doing what would have felt safer for them to do–such as ending the lesson and being held tight in your arms. Then celebrate them and remain willing to help them process any time it comes up again. 



About the author

Beth Rowles is a Certified Parent Coach that lives in Streetsboro with her husband, two young children, and two rescue boxer dogs.  She loves playing with her kids, taking in the beauty of nature, creating all forms of art, practicing yoga, traveling, writing, and reading endlessly. She's also a huge fan of meditation, to maintain her sanity throughout the long and sleepless days of early parenthood! Beth overcame constant second-guessing of parenting decisions by going on a three year journey -- deep into the treasure trove of information on early childhood development and psychology -- and now loves to help other parents trust themselves to make decisions that lead to long-term success.

1 Comment

  1. Kelly Harrington

    A belated thank you for writing this article. (I know I’m a couple of years late!) Although I am not a parent, I was an LCSW for many years, and I am shocked that there are not more mental health professionals speaking out against these ISR lessons. You can plainly see in many videos of these lessons, the look of shock on the child’s face that their parent is not responding to their screams for help and their attempts to reach out to be rescued. Most are too young to even understand they are in a “lesson,” which makes it even more traumatic because they simply think this other adult is hurting them while their parent stands by. Even if they are old enough to understand they are there to learn, their little systems are being, as you said, flooded with cortisol and I would assume adrenaline, which would make them feel as if they were literally fighting for their lives.
    The trauma, loss of trust in the parent with possible contribution to attachment issues, and later anxiety, personality or depressive disorders, make these lessons a danger to the mental health of children. Thanks again for bringing the issue to the attention of the public!

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