By Laura Pellerine
When Calgary mom of two Holly Murray viewed the now-viral video of an 11-month-old boy falling into a pool and then saving himself by rolling over and floating on his back, she desperately wanted to sign her two sons up for the program responsible for teaching the child that skill.
But when Murray discovered that no one in Canada was teaching the program, called Infant Swimming Resource (ISR), she travelled to the U.S. and became a certified instructor instead. She has now taught close to 150 children. While she agrees the only way to keep kids safe is to watch them constantly, she says; “I’m a mom; I know [kids] can get away from you.”
Using a sensory motor technique developed by Dr. Harvey Barnett of Winter Park, Fla., children under six learn to either swim to safety, or if under the age of one, to roll over and maintain a back float position, unassisted, and rest and breathe until help arrives. Over a course of four to six weeks, children are given one-on-one 10-minute lessons, five days a week. At the end of the course, students learn to perform self-rescue skills fully clothed, shoes and all. Since ISR’s inception in 1966, more than 200,000 children have gone through the program.
One of Murray’s first participants was Dayna Purdy from Calgary, whose daughter Addyson started lessons at eight months old. “It wasn’t going to be an excuse not to watch our daughter, but to buy us that split second in case the worst ever happened,” she explains. Purdy admits it was difficult to watch her daughter, who cried through the course, learn the skill through repetition. However, Purdy was amazed to see her daughter learn to right herself from being face-first in the water to floating on her back. “I was close to tears a few times because I couldn’t believe she was doing it.”
Before each session, parents are also required to show the instructor daily logs on their child’s sleep, urination, bowel and dietary habits so that they know whether the child is ready for the lesson.
Despite the program’s success, including 789 documented cases of children using the skills to rescue themselves in a drowning situation, experts urge caution. The Lifesaving Society of Canada, a non-profit organization that provides lifesaving training, says parents should not feel their child is safe from drowning even after participating in an infant program. In a position statement, the Canadian Paediatric Society also asserts such programs should not be promoted as an effective drowning prevention strategy.
“There is no evidence that swimming lessons prevent drowning or near-drowning in this age group [under four years old]. 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.”
“Some adults forget that supervising means staying within reach,” says Safe Kids Canada project leader Denyse Boxell. Though half of all drownings take place in pools, Boxell says babies can drown in anything over an inch of water, including garden ponds and bathtubs. Dr. Barnett agrees that water safety measures should be mandatory, but that his program acts as an extra layer of protection.
He points to a 2009 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that found participation in swimming lessons was associated with an 88 percent reduction in the risk of drowning for children aged one to four.
“I don’t look at it as a sense of security,” Purdy says. “It’s more like preparing your family to get out of the house in case of a fire. I believe in the program 100 percent, but it’s not for everyone; it’s a personal choice.
Laura Pellerine is a Calgary-based writer and editor who never wants to get out of the pool — even when she’s wrinkled like a prune.
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