Swimming Lessons & Drowning Risk In Children

by Pool Builders on 03-07-2009 in Articles

My wife, it can be revealed, never learned to swim, despite spending most of her life living in beach communities. As a form of parental compensation for my wife's lack of comfort in an aquatic environment, our two young children have been charged with learning to swim from a very early age. Of course, this makes perfect sense to me as well, given that we continue to live near the beach. However, due to the not very infrequent tragic stories of young children drowning in family pools, I have sometimes worried that increasing our young children's comfort levels in the water could expose them to an increased risk of a pool-related accidents, due to overconfidence on their part. I was, therefore, quite relieved to find a newly published research study on this very topic, which appears in the current volume of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

In this retrospective case-control study, the authors reviewed cases of drowning deaths occurring in children and adolescents between the ages of 1 and 19 years in the states of Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, California, Texas, and New York. The researchers then interviewed a sample of 88 families of children and teens, from these same states, who had died in drowning accidents. A control group of 213 families who had not experienced the tragic loss of a child was also interviewed. The results and conclusions of this innovative clinical study were rather striking (and personally reassuring to me).

Of the 61 families who lost a child between the ages of 1 and 4 years to drowning, only 3 percent had enrolled their lost child in swimming lessons, while 26 percent of the control group families with children in this same age range had enrolled their toddlers in formal swimming lessons. Among the 27 families that had lost children between the ages of 5 and 19 years to drowning accidents, 27 percent had enrolled their deceased children in formal swimming lessons, compared with 53 percent of the same-aged children in the 79 control group families. (While these results suggest that formal swimming instruction in children aged 5 years or older decreases the risk of accidental drowning, the results in this age group were not statistically significant, unlike the results observed for the younger children.) At the same time, when the researchers looked at unstructured or otherwise informal swimming instruction as a risk factor for accidental drowning, they found absolutely no association between informal instruction and drowning rates in children and adolescents.

The results of this retrospective case-control study identified a whopping 88 percent reduction in the risk of accidental drowning among 1 to 4 year-old children who had undergone formal swimming instruction, when compared to same-age toddlers who had either never undergone formal instruction or who had undergone only informal, unstructured swimming instruction. While the retrospective case-control methodology used for this study is not as powerful as would be observed in a prospective clinical research trial, this study's findings do reassure me that there is most likely some significant benefit associated with formal swimming lessons in younger children.

Selection biases, as well as other potential sources of bias, are difficult to eliminate in these types of clinical studies, and so the absolute benefit of swimming lessons is likely to be less than the 88 percent level reported by this retrospective study. However, when one is considering even potentially modest reductions in the risk of losing one's child to accidental drowning, there is no such thing as a trivial level of risk reduction, in my view. So, our young children will definitely be continuing with their swimming lessons at our friendly neighborhood YMCA.

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