By Melinda Copp

Swimming is not only a fun summertime activity, but also an important safety skill that everyone should know, which is why many parents enroll their kids in lessons. And these days, many companies and community centers also offer swimming lessons for babies as young as a few months old. But can young babies really learn to swim? How young is too young? And what are the pros and cons of enrolling your baby in swimming lessons? The Pros

Enrolling your baby in swimming lessons has several pros. First, it’s a great way to bond with your baby, as most programs put either Mom or Dad in the water with the little student.

“You don’t have your cell phone attached to your hip or other distractions – it’s an hour of uninterrupted one-on-one time for you and your baby, and it’s fun,” says Sue Davis, who runs the Almaden Valley Athletic Club (AVAC) swim school program in San Francisco, Calif.

The AVAC program starts kids as early as 6 months old, but at that age, swimming lessons are more about teaching the parents what to do with the baby in the water and basic water safety techniques than about the baby learning to swim independently. Davis says they focus on making the baby comfortable and happy in the water, which means practicing getting the face wet and going under – something you can start practicing every day with your baby in the bathtub.

Although lessons are a fun way to bond, safety is the most important benefit of swimming lessons for babies, and most programs emphasize safety above all else. A child that is comfortable around water and knows basic techniques is safer.

“Drowning is now one of the leading causes of death for kids under 5,” says Mindy York, co-owner of the Baby Otter Swim School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and co-creator of the Is Your Child’s Life Worth Ten Minutes? water safety DVD for parents. “Swimming lessons are one of the layers of protection that can save a child from drowning.”

The Baby Otter Swim School program starts babies at 10 months old, or 9 months if the child is crawling, and their classes are one-on-one, rather than in a group, which allows them to focus solely on one little swimmer at a time. In this program, which lasts five consecutive days, babies learn how to hold their breath under water so their lungs expand and they float. They also learn how to turn, kick and reach for the side of the pool – an important safety reaction in case Baby ever falls in.

“Drowning for the most part is preventable,” says Jennifer Thomas, a mom from Cape Canaveral, Fla., who enrolled her daughter in swimming lessons at 1 year old. “It is so vital for parents and babies and toddlers to learn basic techniques. It’s tragic, but where we live, we’ve had three toddler deaths due to drowning in their pool in the past two weeks – our most recent was last night, a 2-year-old.”

Getting your baby comfortable with the water and learning important water safety skills are the most important pros of baby swimming lessons – plus it’s a fun way to bond with your little one, and, in group classes, your baby gets the opportunity to interact with others in a fun environment. The Cons

One big downside to taking your baby to swimming lessons is that he or she may still be too young, despite the age recommended by the swimming program.

“We took our 5-month-old daughter to swimming lessons last summer and we finished the two-week program, but looking back she was way too young,” says Lori Bittenbender, a mom from Dallas, Texas. “The water was way too cold; she shivered and cried most of the time. And she was way too young to understand how to do the monkey crawl along the wall.”

Some experts also caution that exposure to pool chemicals can be dangerous for small children. “The problem with using chlorine in pools for sanitation is that the chlorine mixes with everything from sweat to skin flakes to form a toxic soup of byproducts,” says Ann Haiden, an internist in private practice in Kentfield, Calif. “These byproducts, like trihalomethane, trichloramines and dichloroacetonitrile, can actually sit above the water in a gas that can be breathed in.”

Studies have shown that breathing these chemicals can contribute to the development of asthma. Luckily, some methods drastically reduce the need for chlorine. The two main alternative methods are ozone and UV sanitation. Salt water and bromine are two other methods that some pools use. However, salt water is actually used to create chlorine from salt rather than adding the chemical directly, so the pools that use saltwater still contain chlorine. And bromine can form bothersome byproducts just like chlorine, and in some studies, bromine has been shown to bind in the thyroid in place of iodine. So while these alternatives are better, they aren’t as safe as ozone or UV, Haiden says.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until at least age 4 to start swimming lessons for the purpose of actually learning to swim,” Haiden says. “But for the purpose of acclimating a young child to water, there appears to be more room for personal discretion.”

Having fun and learning water safety are two very important pros to baby swimming lessons, but your little one may be too little to grasp the concepts and, depending on how the pool is cleaned, the chemicals may not be completely safe. Although there are some cons to enrolling your baby in swimming lessons, one thing is for sure: Getting your child comfortable around the water as soon as possible can lead to a lifetime of loving to swim and being safe around water.

“I had my daughter (who is now 3) in the pool at 6 weeks old,” says Bruce Mendelsohn, a dad from Auburn, Mass. “Granted, she wasn’t swimming them, but she has since become quite the little fish.”