Water Safety, Bodily Autonomy, and Emotional Health

A parent is concerned and torn about her 18-month-old daughter’s swim lessons, because the toddler cries the entire time. This mom says: “I struggle with giving her bodily autonomy and respect while forcing her to take swim classes for her safety.” She is hoping Janet can help her reconcile her conflicted feelings.

Transcript of “Water Safety, Bodily Autonomy, and Emotional Health”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m discussing a very serious topic, water safety. And I’m going to be offering a perspective that’s less conventional and perhaps controversial, which is: how can we ensure water safety without causing our children emotional distress and potential trauma?

So, I was motivated to speak to this topic today because I did receive a note from a parent on Instagram. And here’s what she said:

Hi, Janet. I’m not sure if you’ll get this message. I’ve been listening and following and reading your information for a while. We just started my 18-month-old in swim classes and she cried the entire time the first two classes. I struggled with giving her bodily autonomy and respect, while forcing her to take swim classes for her safety. I continuously tell her that we love her and she can cry as much as she wants, but her father and I are doing this for her safety. Can you help me reconcile this?

Okay. So, this parent is concerned about her daughter’s feelings around bodily autonomy, and that is a whole other issue. That will be another podcast in the future, I imagine. It’s important that we deliver this message to our children, that we let them know through not only our words, but even more importantly, our actions and the way that we interact with our children, that they do have a right to personal boundaries around their body. That they aren’t just love objects for us to enjoy and do whatever we want with, nor should anybody else, that they have a right to consent to any kind of touch.

And this can be confusing for parents because there are situations where we are keeping our child safe or keeping them appropriate, and we do need to touch them without their permission. They may be saying, “No, I don’t want that.” These situations include buckling our child into a car seat, changing a messy diaper, or picking them up and carrying them out of a situation that they are showing they’re unable to leave on their own or stopping them from a behavior that we can’t let them do.

So, when parents are concerned about bodily autonomy… and this has become a buzz phrase, which is, I think positive, that we’re thinking about this and talking about this and understanding that children do deserve respect. But it can make parents feel tentative about these situations where children do need us to confidently touch them and help them physically.

And we want to do that with a lot of acknowledging of our children’s feelings, welcoming them to be upset, but letting them know, clearly, “I know you don’t like this. You don’t want to be in this car seat. It seems like you really don’t like to be strapped in, but I’ve got to do this to keep you safe.” So, these situations are brief and they can begin to make sense to children because there’s immediacy around it, that these are things we need to do with their bodies without their permission, and this is our job. When our children can’t do these things for themselves, we have to do them.

Now, the situation with a swim class is different in many ways. This is not a brief moment where we have to override our child’s wishes in terms of their bodily autonomy. This is a complex skill that we want our children to learn, but it’s a situation that’s pretty scary and uncomfortable. Getting water in our nose is uncomfortable. The feeling of not being able to breathe the way that we’re used to breathing is uncomfortable and can be very scary. Often, this is done with a person who’s a relative stranger and our parent isn’t with us. (I’m imagining myself the child here). So: I don’t really know this person and I don’t really trust this person. My parents are telling me it’s okay, but I don’t feel safe, I feel scared. It’s uncomfortable and I don’t have a choice in this matter.

The other thing that’s different is that, again, it’s not a brief moment of this, and children can’t at this young age later on realize: Oh, okay, so all that fear that I felt, that trauma that I may have felt was all just to get me to this place where I can stay afloat in the water and I can swim. So, okay, that was all right. They really can’t reflect and put this in context in a long-term way.

So this is a much harsher situation and this is when we have to consider, as parents, our priorities. And I know, every water safety program or most of them will tell you that you need to do this to save your child’s life. That if you do not do this, you’re putting your child’s life in danger. And of course, that goes to the fear in our hearts.

I remember as a parent, personally, this was my biggest fear, in terms of my children’s safety, that my children would drown. And so, we’re vulnerable as parents to people telling us, “Well, nothing else matters if your child is not alive.”

Now, please know, by all means, I’m not saying don’t have your child be in a swim lesson. There are very gentle ways your child can learn to swim that don’t involve them being scared, being distressed. So, please don’t buy into the either/or that “you do it our way, which means your child has to be upset and we do things to them that we think are important for them to learn.” Or, that I am neglecting doing something to help my child. Those are not the only two options that we have.

So the first thing that came up for me when I Googled “studies showing water safety programs save children’s lives,” or something like that, what comes up is a swim company and they have a series of success stories that parents have shared. And these stories left me breathless, because the parents had all looked away. They’d been doing something else for a moment and didn’t see this happening. And I know that happens in life.  But this is the most important thing for protecting our children — that we never (and you don’t hear me say never, ever very often, but I’m going to say it now), we never, ever allow our child to have access to water without complete undistracted supervision. Never, ever.

And that means that if we can’t supervise our child, that we ensure that they have barriers between them and water. We never allow our child access to a pool of water.

So, there actually has only been one U.S. study examining an association between swimming lessons and drowning in children. This was a case controlled study published in 2008. And just in brief, the results for the youngest children in the one to four year age group — this is the age group where accidental drownings are most common and is the number one cause of injury related death for children under five. So, they say, of the 61 cases in the one to four year age group, 23% had participated in formal swimming lessons. And they talk about how they define the difference versus 35 of 134 matched controls, 26%. “In adjusted analysis, there was no statistically significant association between informal instruction and drowning risk.”

They say swimming skills alone are insufficient to protect a child from drowning. “In our study, many of the children who drowned particularly in the older age group were relatively skilled swimmers. For example, respondents reported that 48% of cases, ages five to 19 years could swim 50 feet or more and 58% could swim continuously for at least a minute. 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.”

Something else noted in this study: “Previous concerns have been raised about the potential for swimming lessons to increase the risk of drowning, either through increased exposure to water or through decreased parental vigilance, as parents become more confident in their child’s swimming ability. In combination, the results of our study and the study by Yang et al provide reassurance that swimming lessons do not increase drowning risk. In the one to four year old age group, lessons are likely to offer some protection. Although, the imprecision of estimates in both studies makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the true size of any effect.”

And then the most recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which came out in 2018, they say several times through the statement that swim lessons and swim skills alone can not prevent drowning, though “evidence reveals that many children older than one year old will benefit from swim lessons.” And the study that they cite again, there, is the one that I had previously quoted from.

“Although, swim lessons provide one layer of protection from drowning, swim lessons do not drown proof a child. And parents must continue to provide barriers to prevent unintended access when not in the water and closely supervise children when in and around the water.”

And they note there’s tremendous variability among swim lessons and not every program will be right for each child. These are the recommendations:

One, “parents and caregivers should never, even for a moment, leave young children alone or in the care of another child while in or near bathtubs, pools, spas, or waiting pools, and when near irrigation, ditches, ponds, or other open standing water.”

Two, “parents and caregivers must be aware of drowning risks associated with hazards in the home. Infant bath seats can tip over. Children can slip out of them. Water should be emptied from containers, such as pails and buckets, immediately after use to prevent drowning. And toilets, young children should not be left alone in the bathroom.” And toilet locks may be helpful or bathroom door locks because there’s other access to water in the bathroom as well. (This is me saying that.)

“Parents and caregivers should prevent unsupervised access to the bathroom, swimming pool, or open water.”

And then, “whenever infants or toddlers or non-competent swimmers are in or around water, a supervising adult with swim skills should be within an arm’s length, providing constant touch supervision.” So, by supervision, they mean that you are close enough to be able to touch your child.

“Even with older children and better swimmers, the eyes and attention of the supervising adult should still be constantly focused on the child. This water watcher should not be engaged in other distracting activities that can compromise this attention, including using the telephone, texting, socializing, tending chores, or drinking alcohol. And there needs to be a clear handoff of responsibility from one water watcher to the next.”

I recommend reading all of these and I will link to this study and this statement in the transcript of this podcast.

Then it says, “because children develop at different rates, not all children will be ready to learn to swim at exactly the same age. There’s evidence that swim lessons may reduce the risk of drowning, including for those one to four years of age. Parents should be reminded that swim lessons will not drown proof a child of any age. It’s critical that swim instructors stress this message, as well as the need for constant supervision around water. Swim ability must be considered as only one part of water competence and a multi-layered protection plan that involves effective pool barriers, closed, constant, and attentive supervision, life jacket use, training, and CPR.”

So, there’s more, but this is what I wanted to share.

Again, the last thing I want to do is discourage swim lessons. They can be life-saving. They can be fun. They can be a wonderful opportunity for children to build confidence in themselves and their skills.

But as we know, so many of my podcasts are about this and some of the brain scientists are talking about this, Stuart Shanker, Dan Siegel, Tina Payne Bryson… When children are dysregulated, they’re not as able to perform and learn. So, especially, in a harsh learning situation that is physically uncomfortable, like swimming, we should not be putting children through dysregulation, in my opinion. And I believe it is unnecessary. Everybody’s got to make their own choice, but I would weigh the emotional cost of anything that I’m doing with my child, versus the benefit.

Everything that we do with children is affecting them in many different ways. It’s not as cut and dry as, okay, well, we’re going to harness them into this learning to float thing. In fact, one of the “success stories” that I saw online that a swim company was sharing from a parent, the parents said “she’s very spirited and her teacher said that he had to break her like a horse.” And that should be a giant red flag for any parent. That’s not how children learn best. That is unnecessary. And I don’t even want to consider what that looked like.

And there are other messages that we give children when we put them into these situations or try to teach them things that they’re not willing or ready to learn. I’m going to read a passage from Magda Gerber‘s book, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect. She mentioned swim lessons under the heading of authenticity. She says:

“Many years ago, I wrote about the unforgettable unpleasant experience we had when Dr. Emmi Pikler and I visited a swim class for young infants. I reported on the sensible speech the instructor made before the class, reassuring the parents, that the goal was not to teach swimming, but simply to help the children learn to enjoy the water. Right after the speech, however, she changed into a commanding sergeant and yelled, ‘Hold your children! Immerse them till the neck! ‘Til the nose! Over their heads! Have fun!.’ And indeed, the parents followed all instructions, including have fun. Bursting into broad smiles, repeating, ‘Isn’t this fun! We have fun!’ while looking into their babies’ surprised and frightened faces.

Only one mother of an apparently exhausted baby said, ‘I think that’s enough for you.’ And picked the baby up and rested her on the side of the pool. How could these loving caring parents not see or read their children’s feelings? It looks like, ‘I see what I want to see, or I enjoy it, you should enjoy it too. Or you have no reason to be upset while I try so hard to do what I know is good for you.’ What did these babies really learn or experience? From the child’s point of view, how confusing it must be to feel miserable and see the most trusted person not noticing your anxiety, but smiling at you. No wonder so many adults seek therapy, trying to sort out how they really feel.”

You may or may not agree with that, but we do this with children.

So, how can we help our child to learn to swim in a way that doesn’t compromise their sense of security, sense of self, and the trust between us? We can do a group lesson similar to the one that Magda visited, but it would be one where we are all attuned parents and we are reading our children’s ability in that day and their interest. And if they are telling us that this is too much for me today, I can’t do this, I’m uncomfortable. We pause, we give them a break, we let them know that we hear them, and we understand. We maybe don’t even have to do this with a formal lesson of any kind, we can just take our baby into the water and enjoy the time with them, carrying them around in the water, attuned, going at their pace, following their lead, trusting that they will learn the skill when they’re ready.

And in the meantime, we’re going to be just as vigilant in protecting them from water.

So there’s an organic gradual way that children can learn this.

And then there is a time when they do want lessons, a lot of children, if we’ve approached it this way, if we haven’t created the sense of distress or fear around water, and that this is this thing that I have to do. That’s another thing that they learn from these forced lessons is that learning itself, any kind of learning is really uncomfortable and scary, and doesn’t feel good, that you have to go through all this pain to gain a skill. And that’s just not true.

And when children are three or older, they have an easier time taking direction, especially if they want to, they want to learn to swim. If it’s presented positively, not like this thing that you have to do, then they learn very quickly, most of the time.

Maybe children could do this younger too, again, with a soft, child-led, attuned approach. Maybe not child-led, but child centered. Just a little guidance, every time, helping them to enjoy it and want to do more, to feel excited about developing these skills.

So, again, this is a controversial issue. Everybody make the choices you’re comfortable with. Maybe keep in mind, though, that if your child is going through a stressful experience, there is going to be an effect, probably in your child’s behavior and other ways that they’re going to be offloading the stress. So consider the timing. And if you’re going to do one of these more forced lessons, then do it when your child is not experiencing other challenges in their life, they’re not starting a new school, they haven’t just moved to a different town, they have a new baby. Make sure that this is the one big stressor that they have in their life and then it will be easier for them to offload this and overcome it.

So to this parent, I guess my answer is to reconcile this, that I can’t recommend this kind of class. The other thing is that most of these teachers or a good many of them do not understand child development at all. They understand how to get a person to swim. Some do, and those are the jewels that are wonderful and go for those people. But some of them, they don’t understand how to connect and build trust with the child. And maybe there’s another teacher. Maybe there’s another situation. Maybe waiting a few months could help.

In the meantime, and always, be vigilant. And I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you for making this okay. But I hope some of that helps and everybody’s welcome to disagree as always. And do what you think is best for your family.

Here are links to the resources I cited:

Association between swimming lessons and drowning in childhood: a case-control study
by Ruth A BrennerGitanjali Saluja TanejaDenise L HaynieAnn C TrumbleCong QianRon M KlingerMark A Klebanoff

Prevention of Drowning (from Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics)
by Sarah A. Denny, Linda QuanJulie GilchristTracy McCallinRohit ShenoiShabana YusufBenjamin HoffmanJeffrey Weiss and COUNCIL ON INJURY, VIOLENCE, AND POISON PREVENTION

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes & Noble and in audio at audible.com. You can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

9 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Erin Macartney says:

    Hi Janet,
    I’m a preschool teacher now, but many years ago I was a swim instructor. I taught many “parent-tot” swim classes, and I have to say I 100% agree with what you say here. These classes should be about having fun with your child in the water, and truly being in tune with their comfort level. If a child is being pushed to the point of crying through the lesson, what they are getting out of that lesson at best is a negative association with the water. My classes were always about fun games and songs, and maybe some floating if the child showed an interest, but always the goal is to have that child leave with increased comfort with water. That’s it. Crying and discomfort completely negate the point of these classes, and should absolutely be postponed if a parent finds this to be the case. Thank you so much for speaking on this subject.

    1. And thank you so much for sharing your perspective, Erin.

  2. I’m the founder of Aqua Sensory, a RESPECTFUL baby and early years program for the water. Thank you for highlighting harsh baby swim methods as an awareness to parents, as they are out there. But also what is available in our world are gentle, baby led swim schools also in abundance. Here at Aqua Sensory, we too love being guided by pioneers like Gerber and Pikler, we guide our parents how to wait, watch and wonder… to enjoy their baby UNFOLDING in their own time and own way. Water is so magical, it can NATURALLY provide deep connections and create positive interactions between parent/caregiver and baby. It a medium where there is no distractions, two loving hands and many co-regulation opportunities. Thank
    You Janet for this article and awareness. Jo

  3. I appreciate this timely discussion! Your thoughts are always clarifying for me when thinking through parenting behaviors and choices. I am concerned here though, that while you referred quite a bit to the case-controlled study (and thank you for linking to it), you did not include the study’s stated conclusion: “Participation in formal swimming lessons was associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning in the 1- to 4-year-old children, although our estimates were imprecise and a 95% Cls included risk reductions ranging from 3% to 99%.” I don’t have a deep understanding of statistics, so I admit I’m not sure how much weight to give this conclusion, but as a parent who A) wants to keep my kids safe around water but also B) am happy to *not* do something that seems difficult and may not help anyway… I felt that reading your article was sort of giving permission to let this issue go, let it happen naturally when kids are ready, and simply be vigilant in supervision instead. Except, human error can be counted upon. And after reading the actual study, my takeaway is different… it’s that trying to find high quality swim instruction and gently support my children through that process *is* worth doing even if it’s outside of our complete comfort zones, and even if I’d rather not because of my own preferences RE water. I get that this is complicated, and your treatment of the subject is thorough and thoughtful. I mostly want to comment to speak to other parents like myself here, that I don’t believe the overall message should let us off the hook about quality swim instruction being a part of water safety for our kids.

  4. avatar Caroline H. says:

    Janet,
    I appreciate all the work you do to educate parents on how to guide the upbringing of their children. I am especially glad that you covered this topic. Drowning, as you mentioned and as described by the AAP, “is the leading cause of injury death in US children 1 to 4 years of age and the third leading cause of unintentional injury death among US children and adolescents 5 to 19 years of age.”

    I agree with you and the AAP that MANY layers of protection are needed to prevent child drownings and that no child, no matter what swim lessons they have had, is “drown proof.” Supervision, pool fences, removing toys from pools when finished swimming, locked doors, and survival swim lessons are each a layer put in place to help prevent drowning. Whether or not a parent chooses to use survival swim lessons for their child is a personal choice.

    I am commenting because I believe you left out one very important point in your podcast. And that is that the majority of drownings in ages 1-4 happen during times that a child is NOT expected to be near water. Meaning, they do not happen when the child is swimming. By leaving this point out and simultaneously emphasizing that parental supervision is always necessary when a child is near water I feel as though you are perpetuating the fallacy that child drownings only happen to neglectful parents.

    Please consider adding this information to your podcast and post. I fear parents and caregivers will listen to your podcast as is and think, “I am an attentive parent. I will just watch my children when at the pool/beach.” and chose to not teach their youngest children to float/swim or implement other preventative measures.

    Drowning can happen to children with the most attentive and careful parents. This is why layers of protection are so important. Nicole Hughes became an advocate for preventing child drownings after loosing her son, Levi. I implore you to reach out to her as she can more eloquently explain how parents can live in a false sense of security when they believe that drowning only happens to to neglectful parents.

    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Caroline. Nicole’s story is horrific and heartbreaking. I read it just now. I am aware that drowning usually happens out of the parents’ sight and that’s why I emphasized:

      “…these stories left me breathless, because the parents had all looked away. They’d been doing something else for a moment and didn’t see this happening. And I know that happens in life. But this is the most important thing for protecting our children — that we never (and you don’t hear me say never, ever very often, but I’m going to say it now), we never, ever allow our child to have access to water without complete undistracted supervision. Never, ever.

      And that means that if we can’t supervise our child, that we ensure that they have barriers between them and water. We never allow our child access to a pool of water.”

      This parent may not have been aware that her child could open the front door of the vacation home — that the barricade between her child and a swimming pool was penetrable. That was her tragic mistake. I imagine she was an otherwise attentive parent, but in this case she admits that she neglected to keep her child safe. Her recommendations are as follows:

      “Drowning prevention requires multiple layers of protection. I now know Levi had zero barriers between himself and the water.

      1. Install a 4-sided fence that goes fully around the entire pool.
      2. Make sure the fence has self-closing and latching gates.
      3. Utilize pool and door alarms.
      4. Supervision: Designate a Water Guardian anytime there is access to water, even if the children are not swimming.
      5. Enroll your child in quality swim lessons that lead to water competence. All swim lessons are not created equal. Progress should happen in weeks and months, not in years. Lessons should provide your child with the skills to survive if they were to fall into the pool. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends swim lessons can begin at age 1. These lessons should focus on self-rescue and teach your child how roll-to-float or how to get to the side of the pool. I firmly believe that swim lessons would have saved Levi, and I will carry this regret for the rest of my life. Do NOT put off swim lessons.
      6. Remove toys from the pool when finished swimming.
      7. Learn CPR (drowning CPR requires rescue breaths).
      8. Don’t let your child rely on puddle jumpers or flotation devices when in the pool. These create a false sense of security. Levi wore one in the pool just hours before he died.
      9. However, ALWAYS wear life jackets when on natural water (lakes, rivers, oceans). Natural water is dark, deep, and has currents. It is not the same as a pool.
      10. Children can drown in 2 inches of water and in 30 seconds. Be aware of buckets, toilets, irrigation ditches, ponds, baby pools, and bathtubs.

      Some days I have confidence that we will survive this loss, that we can be happy, that Levi has forgiven us. Some days, the pain is brand new and I’m the mom looking in horror over the balcony and into the pool.

      I never would have imagined surviving this long after losing a child. Yet, we are and we will. We are determined that Levi’s legacy will not be one of anger and bitterness – but of love and shared connections and hope.

      Put in layers of protection to prevent drowning. Love each other. Choose to live a purposeful life.”

      Nicole is courageous and generous to share her story in the hope of helping others. She believes that swim lessons would have saved her son’s life, but so would all of her previous 4 points, which were sadly neglected in this case. Swim lessons are #5 on her list of layers.

      I recommend swim lessons when they can be conducted with at least a modicum of attunement and respect for the child.

      Again, thank you for sharing this information.

  5. Hi Janet,
    In your podcast you quoted from Magda Gerber’s book about the visit to the swimming lesson that after putting the children under the water: “Bursting into broad smiles, repeating, ‘Isn’t this fun! We have fun!’ while looking into their babies’ surprised and frightened faces”. And then she wrote” How could these loving caring parents not see or read their children’s feelings? It looks like, ‘I see what I want to see, or I enjoy it, you should enjoy it too. Or you have no reason to be upset while I try so hard to do what I know is good for you.’

    I teach parent-child swimming lessons and I agree with all you said in your podcast. I do talks on Water Safety and I say it’s like the Location Location Location are the first 3 most important things about buying a house well in water safety it’s Supervision! Supervision! Supervision!!!
    I wanted to ask you with regards to the quotes above where you lie on the thinking that our children often look to us for how to react to something. I have often said to parents, when we first put their child under the water, to ensure they put on a smile for their child to see as they come up. (I’d like to add that we have, by this point, taught parents to use cuing to give the child a heads up that water is to be sprinkled over their head, or that they will go under, so that the child has a chance to prepare or object, and that parents look for signs of readiness or objection and react according to the child’s reactions).
    In the quotes above the point was that the child’s reactions were being ignored which is definitely not the way to go! I have heard that babies and indeed teenagers can find it difficult to read some facial expressions such as confusion or questioning looks and that they can often interpret these as anger. Is this correct and as I said before what’s your thoughts on how much our reaction can affect their reaction?
    It is very late as I write this so I’m hoping it makes some sense to you!
    Thank you

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