Christopher Ward is only 3 years old, but already he is a swimmer, making his way the entire length of the pool at the Ellicott City Y and then, after a little break, back again.
His mother, Colley, signed him up for his first lesson when he was 6 months old. As he got older, she knew she had to keep enrolling him in classes. "My child's a daredevil. When he was 2, he'd just jump in, no matter how many times I said, 'Don't do that,' " she said.
He would have to learn how to swim or he could hurt himself or worse. "Now I feel more confident with him in the water," she said. "I know he has basic skills at this point."
A National Institutes of Health study published in last month's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that providing very young children - like Christopher - with swimming lessons appears to significantly reduce their risk of drowning.
The study is the first of its kind, and researchers hope the findings will ease concerns of pediatricians. Many have long felt that giving swimming lessons to children ages 1 to 4 might actually increase their drowning risk by making parents less vigilant when children are near the water and by decreasing children's natural - and healthy - fear of the water.
Still, concluded the authors: "Parents and caregivers who choose to enroll their children in swimming lessons should be cautioned that this alone will not prevent drowning and that even the most proficient swimmers can drown."
Parents often ask Dr. Robert Ancona, chief of pediatrics at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, whether their infants and toddlers should take swimming lessons. "Overall, we kind of advise against it," he said.
He worries that everyone involved - parents, caregivers, the children themselves - may develop a false sense of security from formal lessons. Parents may pay less attention to their little ones around the water. Children might wander off alone to a pool, believing they know how to swim. The results can be deadly.
Ancona says that while swimming lessons might be fun, the skills taught are "not to be relied on" as a way to prevent drowning, especially in children younger than 4.
"You're getting them used to the water, they may learn to float, but they're not going to learn the Australian crawl," he said. "That stuff is all OK, but the parent needs to understand they're not really swimming lessons. They're entertainment."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been divided on the issue of swimming lessons for very young children. A 2000 policy on swimming states that "generally children are not developmentally ready for swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday," while a later policy on drowning prevention says that "ultimately, the decision of when to start a child in swimming lessons must be individualized."
Drowning is the second-leading cause of death of infants and young children in the United States, with roughly 4,000 dying each year. Many more are badly injured.
Harvey A. Barnett, who has been preaching about the benefits of swimming lessons for decades, says what is missing in the research is any explanation of which types of swimming lessons save the most lives.
Barnett is the founder of a Florida company called Infant Swimming Resource, which teaches a type of lessons that can be characterized more as a survival skill than as a fun 30 minutes getting acquainted with the water.
The goal of his program, which is taught at various pools across the country, is to teach a baby, as young as 6 months old, how to roll over on her back and float as soon as she has been put into the pool.
Once the infant is proficient at that, she is put in the pool with her clothes on to simulate an actual dangerous situation. That way, she can learn to roll over and float in soggy, heavy clothing, because a child who accidentally falls into a pool will likely be fully dressed and will need to learn how to roll over with that impediment.
Barnett said that babies who are exposed to more traditional swimming lessons, during which they may be held by their mothers and taught to kick their legs and maybe blow a few bubbles, will associate the water with love, nurturing and a "play environment."
"They have no skills," Barnett said. "I would think that child has a higher risk of drowning than a child who has been exposed to a program that has taught them to roll onto their backs."
Supervision, though, remains the key to keeping young children safe around the water, most experts agree. And it's the No. 1 rule in Anna Banyas' Ellicott City backyard.
"I have a 6-year-old," Banyas said. "She swims very well but she doesn't go in the pool by herself."
She started all three of her children in swimming lessons at the age of 1, including 4-year-old Peter, whom she was watching as he took a class at the Ellicott City Y's pool the other day. Peter and the four other little boys in the water with him could each swim a lap of the pool without flotation devices or much help from their instructor, Megan Lehane. In the class being taught in the next lane, a group of older kids were clearly less skilled in the water.
"The longer you wait," Banyas said, "it seems like the harder it comes."
"I am a firm believer in lessons at an early age," said Lehane, the Ellicott City Y's aquatics coordinator. "I see some confidence growing in them when they start younger - but I think that's a good thing."
She wants her young charges to be able to put their faces in the pool and blow bubbles, not to be scared of the water. Most of the beginners wear flotation devices and learn to use their arms and legs to get more horizontal in the water. And there is plenty of talk of safety. "A lot of times, we'll say, 'If you kick your feet, you won't sink,' " she said.
During a recent class, she encouraged 3-year-old Christopher, his goggles over his eyes, to keep moving across the pool. "Let me see your big, strong muscles," she said, shouting over the din. "When you're swimming, I don't get to see them because they're under the water. So let's get those arms out. Face in and arms out."
Before the boys were dismissed, it was time to go over the pool rules. "Can you ever swim without a lifeguard?" Lehane asked. "No," the boys said.
"And you always have to have a swim teacher or a parent, right?"
ABOUT THE STUDY
The researchers analyzed medical examiner and coroner records and interviewed families of children who drowned in Maryland, North Carolina and more than a dozen counties in four other states between 2002 and 2005. The researchers compared characteristics of each child who drowned to another child of the same sex and the same geographical area who did not drown. Of the 61 children ages 1 to 4 who drowned, only two had received swimming lessons. Of the 134 1 to 4-year-olds in the control group who did not drown, 26 percent (35 children) had taken swimming lessons.
Dr. Ruth A. Brenner of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said the data suggest swimming lessons provided some protection against drowning. "We are confident that swimming lessons do not increase drowning risk in this age group," she said.