Sep 262011

Nicole Scrivo vowed she would “never be one of those moms,” the ones who lose track of their children, even for a few seconds, only to find them struggling in the water of the backyard pool.

But then, during just a normal day at her Scottsdale home about four years ago, she heard her young daughter Natalie say, “Look, Mom. Jacob’s swimming.”

Only Jacob was 11 months. And he didn’t know how to swim. Jolted into awareness, Scrivo plucked him from the water. “He was gasping,” she recalled. She suddenly knew just how easy losing sight of a child could be, even if you’re only a few steps away. “I had been exhausted and distracted by the pool vacuum,” she said.

So Scrivo made a different vow. As Jacob turned 1, she enrolled him in a swim program. Her daughters, Natalie, 7, and Emily, 3, have completed the same program through Infant Swimming Resource, a Florida-based business that has instructors in the Valley.

slideshow Valley drowning prevention for infants

Swim lessons, water awareness, pool fences, swim vests and increased monitoring are some of the steps parents take to help safeguard their children around water. The tools have never been more needed.

So far this year, 15 children younger than 12 have drowned in Maricopa County, the same number as this time last year, according to statistics compiled by the Children’s Safety Zone for the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona.

Historically, drownings happen nearly every month of the year in the Valley.

It’s a horrifying statistic and unfortunately, “it’s our culture,” part of what happens being in a Southwestern climate, said Dr. David Beyda, a pediatric critical-care specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “We keep trying to tell parents every year, we keep trying to bring attention to children drowning.”

He said getting children into swim programs that teach water safety should just be one of the layers used to prevent drowning.

“You don’t want to have a false sense of security,” he said. Yet programs that help a child know how to turn onto their backs to float or swim to the side of the pool are “better than nothing.”

For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that swim instruction not be given to children 3 and younger because they were not developmentally ready and could result in hypothermia and lung damage from pool chemicals. But a year ago, that policy changed. The evidence no longer supports that advice.

Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, a pediatric hospitalist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, was the lead writer in an AAP report that said a parent’s decision to teach a child to swim should be based on the child’s frequency of exposure to water and emotional and physical maturity.

Becky Harris, an instructor with Infant Swimming Resource, teaches children 6 months and older. But age is only one factor.

“They have to have the reflex that helps you gag, be able to turn their head and roll front to back,” she said.

In addition, parents have to fill out an extensive medical background form that she said is reviewed by a medical team.

Each child receives 10-minute sessions, five days a week for four to six weeks, at a cost of $85 per week, excluding registration. At the end of the sessions, children 6 to 12 months old should be able to go from being face down to floating on their back, and to make noise to attract help, Harris said.

“They don’t have cognition to figure out how to swim to the side or have the strength,” she said.

Kids older than 1 “have the motor skills to formulate a plan,” she said. “We want them to problem-solve, gather information and then swim. When they get tired, they can just roll on their back and float.”

Harris has heard from skeptics. During one class she held at a public pool, a woman who was listening bristled at hearing the child cry as the short lesson began. “She said, ‘She doesn’t like that very much, does she? Why are you doing that to her?’ “

Harris quietly responded. “Her brother drowned last year and that’s why we’re here,” she said, motioning to the child’s mother.

Bob Hubbard of the Hubbard Family Swim School has heard the concerns of some people about teaching a child too young. Classes at his Valley-wide school also start at 6 months. “But research is saying that exposing them to water, getting them to float” can help prevent drownings, he said.

“We expect mom and dad to be in the water with them,” Hubbard said. “We view the parent as the student and the parent as the teacher.”

On Wednesday, Joe Kenyon smiled as he watched his 11-month-old son, J, easily flip from his chest to his back time and again during a swim lesson with Harris. Kenyon said they started him at 9 months, not wanting to wait any longer. “We have a pool, so we wanted to take every precaution.”

Andrew Jupp was another proud parent during another lesson.

“He loves it so much,” he said of his 17-month-old son, Ryder. “You see so many drownings in the news, we think of this as cheap insurance.”

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