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11:22 AM

Keeping Kids Afloat: Infant Swimming Resource Self-Rescue

While most toddlers aren’t coordinated enough to learn traditional swim strokes, they can learn basic survival skills like surfacing, turning onto their backs to float with their head above water and reaching for the wall of the pool.

Infant Swimming Resource Self-Rescue Swim Safety

By Ashley Antle

It’s never too early to teach children to be safe around water. After all, if a baby can crawl, they can make their way to a pool or open body of water. Any number of things can lure them there — a floating toy or sheer curiosity as they naturally explore the world around them. Whatever the reason, the result could be deadly. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children as young as 1 year old can benefit from water competency training, which is teaching kids to understand the danger water poses, how to avoid it and how to survive should they find themselves in water alone.

“I think the No. 1 thing that water competency gives a young child is confidence,” said Jillian Mitchell, a community health program specialist at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “If a child falls in unexpectedly they are in a situation that might induce panic, but being water-competent is having the confidence to know what to do to survive.”

While most toddlers aren’t coordinated enough to learn traditional swim strokes, they can learn basic survival skills like surfacing, turning onto their backs to float with their head above water and reaching for the wall of the pool.  

Kelsey Strieby calls it aquatic problem-solving. She is a Certified Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) Self-Rescue® instructor and has taught hundreds of children water survival and self-rescue skills. 

“There are two components to this,” Strieby said. “It's the roll-back-to-float program and the swim-float-swim program. But the first priority is being able to float to survive.”

Survival Becomes Second Nature

As an ISR instructor, Strieby teaches infants and children to roll onto their backs and float if they fall into the water. After the child has been walking for a few months, they’ll advance to learn to swim, then roll onto their back and float, and swim again until they can grab the side of the pool. If they are in a larger body of water and cannot get to the side, Strieby teaches kids to survive by floating on their backs until help arrives. 

Her students don’t learn a specific swim stroke or even to tread water, but to use their natural movement, like when they are crawling or walking, to bring themselves to the surface. 

“Self-rescue is taught using muscle memory and each child’s unique muscle movement,” Strieby said. “So the kids actually simulate like they're walking or crawling through the water. We don't teach a specific movement of the hand or leg. We will guide them through how to move effectively in the water and reinforce that moving their arms is great, but how that arm moves or how that leg moves is specific to that child.”

Just like riding a bike, consistency and repetition with these skills promote muscle memory and competence. If the unthinkable happens, those trained responses kick in, giving little ones a chance to survive.

“We want their survival response in water to become second nature,” Mitchell said.

Children with special health, developmental and learning needs benefit from this approach, too, especially if traditional swim lessons are not a good fit for them or learning specific swim strokes is outside of their developmental abilities. Every one of Strieby’s students undergoes a health assessment that is reviewed by a nursing team before beginning lessons, so she can tailor her teaching to their particular needs. 

Choose Wisely

When it comes to finding the right water competency program for your child, Strieby encourages parents to do their research. A quick social media search of infant swim lessons will return all kinds of videos of very young children, even babies, seemingly learning to swim, but Strieby cautions that not all of these approaches are practical or safe. 

“We don't throw babies into the water and let them sink or swim,” she said. “Programs that claim they teach survival and show videos of them chunking children into the water—that should never ever happen in an ISR self-rescue lesson. It should be a guided, safe and gentle approach. I always tell people, if you are going to commit to doing a survival swim program, please do your homework and make sure it's a program with a certified instructor who has had quality training and that the program has safety protocols in place.”

Strieby’s lessons do include simulations of situations in which a child may fall into the water. They even practice survival skills in diapers as well as summer, fall and winter clothing because many drownings occur when kids are fully clothed and not expected to be near water. In 2021, over 60% of patients brought to Cook Children’s following a drowning incident were from accidents that occurred during an unplanned swim time.

Respect the Danger

Water competency and rescue skills also teach kids to have a healthy fear of water as they are introduced to the natural consequences of going into the water alone, like not being able to breathe and the hard work it takes to stay afloat. 

“Kids who learn to self-rescue learn that if they fall into that water and mom is not right there, they are going to be responsible for their own lives and getting their own air,” Strieby said. “As silly as it sounds, this creates a healthy boundary for many kids, because they don't want to have to do that hard work. They don’t want to have to use their skills unnecessarily.”

The majority of Strieby’s students are under the age of 4, but she does teach self-rescue to children up to six years of age. Once they master survival and self-rescue skills, some kids go on to traditional lessons with other programs to learn specific swim strokes. Either way, children who learn water competency and rescue skills from an early age are better equipped to survive a water-related accident. 

Even so, Mitchell cautions that swim and self-rescue lessons are not a replacement for the layers of protection needed to prevent children from drowning. Maintaining barriers to and around the pool, keeping pools clear of toys attractive to little ones when not in use, having a designated water watcher and wearing a life jacket are all important components of water safety, whether a child does or does not know how to swim. 

Lifeguard Your Child began in 2016 and continues its regional collaboration, led by Cook Children’s, to prevent drownings in North Texas. The campaign aligns consistent messages and educational goals across our region. Together with community partners across 11 counties, we work year-round to provide education, Water Watcher tags, swim lessons, life jackets and other prevention tools to families.

The Lifeguard Your Child campaign is spread through the Safe Kids North Texas Coalition, which is based in Fort Worth and led by Cook Children’s.

The campaign’s strategies include Cook Children’s Loaner Life Jacket Stations at many lake entry points across the region. Families can go to the stations to find U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets in a variety of sizes with easy tips for a proper fit.

Safety tips for home swimming pools: 

  • Assign a water watcher, aka an adult who will commit to 100% supervision of children in and around water.
  • Restrict access by installing door locks high out of children’s reach. Door and window alarms can signal if someone leaves the house. 
  • Install four-sided fencing around pools with a self-latching gate that only opens out. The fence should be at least 4 feet (preferably 5 feet) high. 
  • Remove all toys and floats from the pool area so children are not tempted to get close to the water. 
  • For above-ground pools, make sure the ladder is removed and not accessible when it’s not swimming time. 
  • Consider a pool surface alarm to alert if anyone/anything falls into the water. 

Safety tips for the bathtub: 

  • An adult must stay at the side of the tub in reach of the child. 
  • Pay attention. This is not the time for multitasking. 
  • Ignore distractions like the doorbell or phone calls.
  • Drain the tub after each use. 

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