A new study substantiates what aquatics professionals have long believed, and it may change the stance of a key pediatrics group. Researchers say swim lessons for young children do not increase their risk of drowning; they apparently help prevent it.

“We found that fewer of the children who had drowned had participated in formal lessons,” said Dr. Ruth Brenner, lead author of the study from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, based in Bethesda, Md. “Exactly why swim lessons appear to offer a protective effect is unclear, but certainly they did not seem to do any harm.”

The study examined children ages 1 to 19. It’s one of the first in the nation to look at connections between swim lessons and drowning. Researchers evaluated coroner reports and interviewed surviving relatives of young drowning victims. They compared those cases with a control group of youngsters from the same communities.

“This is the scientifically derived data that we’ve been waiting for,” said Johnny Johnson, owner of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, Calif.

Published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (March 2009), the findings indicate that formal swim training could reduce drowning risk in children ages 1 to 4 by more than 85 percent. Lessons appear to have a similar protective effect in older children, but results weren’t statistically significant.

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics is considering revising its position on swim lessons for very young children. A draft of a new policy, written by Dr. Jeff Weiss, a pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona, currently is under review.

“Basically, because of concern over parents dropping their guard when it comes to supervision, the AAP currently does not recommend swimming lessons before age 4,” said Dr. Weiss, a former member of the AAP’s Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. “But Dr. Brenner has a significant background in this area. [She authored one of the earlier swim lesson policy statements], so the literature is being considered.”

Regardless of policy, experts agree, swim lessons are just one part of multilevel prevention.

“Being a skilled swimmer doesn’t make a child ‘drown proof,’” said Brenner, adding that among the 5- to 19-year-olds in the study, 48 percent of those who drown (11 of 23) were reported as able to swim 50 feet.