Utah swim schools teach lifesaving skills to babies as young as 4 months

Published: Tuesday, July 1 2014 7:05 p.m. MDT

Erin O'Connor teaches Infant Swimming Resource lessons to 23-month-old DeWitt Ayers at a pool in Midvale Tuesday, June 24, 2014. The lessons teach toddlers to float on their backs and swim briefly until help arrives or they reach a pool edge.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Ripley Nicholson splashed her hands in the water and then leaned her head back, as her swim instructor guided her to a float and then let go.

"One, two, three, four," instructor Erin O'Connor counted in a Midvale pool before grabbing the 18-month-old.

O'Connor teaches Infant Swimming Resource lessons designed to teach children from 6 months to 6 years old how to survive if they find themselves alone in the water. The method has grown in popularity since a YouTube video showing a toddler survival floating for several minutes went viral.

Ripley is one of 12 children O'Connor teaches privately five days a week in 10-minute sessions. Stickers, a dip in the hot tub, snuggles, hugs and praise are all used to reward children for their hard work.

On this day, Ripley sported a ruffle-bottomed, white-flowered baby blue swim bottom and a temporary seal tattoo on her belly.

"This is my first child, yes, and I'd like to keep her," quipped Elizabeth Nicholson, Ripley's mother. "Enjoying the water is good, but not dying is better."

Nicholson admits she and her husband are being "ultra vigilant" to make sure their daughter has a good experience. They have been happy with O'Connor, who they say is "intuitive" and can tell when Ripley "has had too much," adjusting the speed of the lessons accordingly.

"It's really nice to see (children) going from completely unskilled and not sure what to do in the water to being able to save themselves if they should find the water by themselves," O'Connor said.

Drowning is the second-most common cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 4 in the United States, next to birth defects, and second behind motor vehicle accidents between 1999 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As an emergency room doctor, Nicholson has seen the danger water poses for small children and wants to protect Ripley from harm.

"They're crafty. They can get away from you really quickly, and even the most vigilant parent can lose track of their child in an instant," she said. "A small child can drown in very little water. They don't need to be in the deep end of a pool. It can be just above their head, or if they're even younger and can't walk, it can be in only several inches of water."

Sue Mackie, executive director of the United States Swim School Association, said the Infant Swimming Resource method is a "totally different method of teaching" from those used in most schools, and she cautions that some children could develop "psychological issues" if they are pushed to learn skills they are not ready to learn.

Because every child is different, some will thrive in the infant swimming program while others may not, Mackie said. Parents should figure out the goals they have for their child's lessons and be open to finding instructors that fit their child's temperament and needs.

“If there’s something that doesn’t feel right or doesn’t feel like the way you want your child taught, then you maybe should look at something else," Mackie said.

Liz Walker, a former Infant Swimming Resource instructor, began her own school in 1989 after teaching ISR for six years, becoming a master instructor and training other instructors in the method.

Walker said some parents would come to her with concerns that their children were waking up in the middle of the night or throwing up on the way to the pool.

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