Infant Swim and Exercise Programs

By: Rae Pica

If movement and stimulation are good for babies, it only makes sense that more movement and stimulation - perhaps facilitated by a trained professional - is even better for them! Not exactly.

There's no doubt infant swim programs are highly popular (about five to 10 million infants and preschoolers participate in formal instruction), and infant exercise programs are becoming more popular all the time. But the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued warnings about both of them. Why? We'll take a look at infant swim programs first.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury and death in young children, with rates highest among American children ages one to two. Still, the AAP feels strongly enough about the issue of infant swim programs that it has released two policy statements on the subject, the first in 1985 and an update in 2000.

According to the association, children are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until they're four years old. Although they may be able to perform elementary swimming motions at about 12 months, these motions are more along the lines of a dog paddle than a traditional swimming stroke, or front crawl. And, as with other skills learned before children are developmentally ready, aquatic skills take longer to learn and are limited by the children's neuromuscular capacity. Furthermore, starting early doesn't translate into "a higher level of swimming proficiency compared with those taking lessons at a later age."

In other words, the situation is the same as it is with hurrying other motor skills. Earlier isn't better, and an infant swim program certainly is not going to help create a future Olympic swimmer. Also, the training itself may have a long-term effect on the child's sense of autonomy (self-sufficiency), as motivation is an essential ingredient in the learning of any skill - and motivation is not yet in the infant's emotional repertoire.

But there's much more to consider here. Even when the infant swim program's intention is to focus on water safety knowledge rather than actual swimming skills (as is the intention of the aquatic programs of the YMCA and the Red Cross), caution is the key. Warns the AAP, "When instruction attempts to optimize learning by reducing fear of water, children may unwittingly be encouraged to enter the water without supervision."

Says David Elkind, in Miseducation, if parents enroll their babies in infant swim programs specifically to prevent drowning, they may unintentionally be shifting the responsibility for not drowning to the children themselves!

Furthermore, a child without the necessary cognitive skills may be unable to transfer his knowledge from one context to another. A story told on-air by Kelly Ripa, co-host of Live with Regis and Kelly, illustrates this point. Ripa was relating a story about her family's trip to Hawaii during which her preschool son was standing in a koi pond feeding the fish. He suddenly slipped and fell facedown into the pond. But, since he'd been enrolled in swimming programs "several days a week for years" and possessed many certificates proclaiming he could swim, she and her husband merely waited for their son's swimming skills to kick in. But they never did! He remained facedown and then began to sink. It appears the child knew what was expected of him in one situation (swimming lessons) but not in an entirely new situation.

As Dr. Elkind points out, there are other hazards as well. Infants in swimming classes are at risk for "middle-ear infections and potential permanent hearing loss, for autoasphyxiation from swallowing water, and for diarrhea, since the babies are not toilet- trained and the water may be polluted."

Similar dangers exist with infant exercise programs. Specifically, the AAP warns against programs in which the baby's limbs are exercised, held in various positions, or otherwise manipulated. While no parent would intentionally take things beyond the baby's limits, it is nonetheless all too easy to do, as an infant's bones are not completely solidified. Nor do infants have the strength or reflexes required to protect themselves from external forces � no matter how well intentioned.

And if we can try for a moment to put ourselves in the baby's "shoes," we have to wonder how all that involuntary manipulation feels. It seems it would be much like having physical therapy - certainly a necessary procedure when there's a physical problem to be addressed - but not one an individual would sign up for voluntarily!

If the purpose of the program is to provide social contact for parent and baby, that's great. If the purpose is to ensure parent and child have quality one-on-one time, during which the baby has a chance to reach for objects, creep on the floor, and rock to the rhythm of a song in Mom's or Dad's arms, that's wonderful. But if the purpose of the program is to improve physical prowess or to provide a "head start" in the acquisition of motor skills - well, suffice to say, there's only disappointment in store for parent and child.

Rae Pica is a children's movement specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity. Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. To visit her and read more articles, go to

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