In a move many aquatics professionals have long awaited, the American Academy of Pediatrics has reversed its position against swim lessons for children under 4 years of age.

Previously, the organization discouraged swim lessons for children younger than 4, citing a lack of scientific evidence about the effects of lessons for this age group.

“The [AAP’s] policy has always been that kids 4 and older should learn to swim,” said Jeffrey Weiss, MD, author of AAP’s new policy statement. “It was the younger ones we weren’t so sure about.”

Two recent studies prompted the new guidelines. The research, which analyzed a group of children aged 1 to 4, suggests that formal aquatic instruction may potentially decrease a child’s risk of drowning, according to Julie Gilchrist, MD, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who worked closely with Weiss to develop the new policy.

“The studies are certainly not strong enough for us to say, ‘Everybody must run out and get their 1-year-old swimming lessons right away,’” Weiss said. “I wish I could just say, ‘At a certain age, this is the right time.’ But each kid’s different. ... "

AAP’s announcement came as no surprise to Bob Hubbard, director of Hubbard Swim School in Phoenix. “We’ve been teaching kids under the age of 4 to swim since ’92,” he said. “We’ve had hundreds of doctors and pediatricians in the water with us. So we’re tremendously supportive of the [AAP’s] change in position.”

Weiss and Hubbard emphasize that lessons alone aren’t an all-around defense against drowning: Layers of protection, including lifeguards and close parental supervision, are crucial.

Still, some questions remain unanswered. Though the studies determined which of the children had taken swim lessons, research didn’t distinguish the frequency or structure of lessons and at what age they began.

“It’s not the age at which the kids are taught,” said Johnny Johnson, director of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, Calif., “but the amount of stress and aggressiveness in the format of the class.”

Gilchrist urges parents to choose a program with sensible expectations, no matter how lessons are organized.