Parents use intense swim course to help keep children from drowning

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May 8, 2014 8:37:25 AM PDT
Summer is approaching and so is swim season. With drowning as the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 4, many parents may be anxious as families spend more time around water.

Accidents happen even to the most vigilant parents. And although instructors tell us supervision is the most important tool in preventing drowning, they want parents to think of Infant Self Rescue as an extra layer of security.

We followed some local children as they progressed through this highly specialized swim course to see if it really works.

We warn viewers that the video in this story may be unsettling to watch.

At first glance, video of 2-year-old Audrey - dressed in winter clothes and seeming to gasp for air as she maneuvers her tiny body to stay afloat - may seem disturbing, even cruel.

Christine Stinson, a certified instructor for Infant Swim Resource, or ISR, teaches the course at Normandy Farm Hotel - Conference Center in Blue Bell, Montgomery County. She says this intense and unconventional survival swim technique has a simple mission.

"ISR's motto is NOT, 'One more child drowns.' That is our goal and our mission," Stinson said.

It is a mission Lisa McGuire says has proved invaluable to her family. She enrolled her son Ryan at 18 months old. His first lesson was not easy to watch.

"He was just lifeless and sank. And as a parent watching your child do absolutely nothing to even attempt to save themselves - it was horrifying," McGuire said.

But a short time after he completed the course, Ryan followed his family dog into a choppy ocean with a strong current.

"It was instinct, absolutely instinct for him to flip over and save himself and wait for me to rescue him," McGuire said.

The instruction is based on the theory that infants as young as 6 months can learn to roll over and float in the water through sensory motor skills and repetition.

"You need small actions to teach the big action. It's not something you can just do in your backyard," Stinson said.

Toddlers' skills are more advanced: learning how to swim well enough to reach the safety of the steps, side of the pool, or the shoreline. And because drowning is a silent killer, it is essential, although difficult as a parent to watch, that the child cry and scream as they float. If they are heard while in distress, they can be rescued.

The children who graduate from the program are able to perform their water survival skills in anything from a bathing suit to full winter attire.

Although ISR emphasizes parental supervision and vigilance, the program claims to have documented hundreds of cases in which infants or toddlers have used their life-saving skills in real-life emergencies.

But child psychologist Dr. Melissa Manni-Sumner has concerns about the validity of these cases.

"There's been no scientific study of how well the skills transfer from class to the real world. None of us know how we are going to react in a panic situation," Manni-Sumner said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concurs, stating for children under 1 year old: "The water skills program for infants may make compelling videos for the internet, but no scientific study has yet demonstrated these classes are effective."

But as a parent of twin girls, Emily Royle says she's confident ISR is the extra security her children need around water.

"Knowing what they bring out from the end of it is worth it," Royle said.

The program requires commitment. On average, it takes children 4 to 6 weeks, 5 days a week, for about 10 minutes each session.

And it's pricey. Depending on the instructor, it can cost around $100 per week per child.

Again, parent supervision is the number one priority, and we should emphasize the ISR teachers go through a rigorous instruction course. This is not something you can teach your kids on your own.


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