Teaching Infants to Swim
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - The happy hullabaloo of eight young cousins frolicking one summer afternoon ended when 23-month-old Evan Haddock drowned.
His mother, Angela Haddock, talks freely about the tragedy that shook her world to the core and why his namesake, his 7-week-old sister Evangeline, is going to learn to save herself in water as soon as she learns to crawl - soon after the 6-month mark.
"I never thought it would happen to me - I'm one of those over-protective mothers who always know where their kids are," said the Gainesville mother of six.
But drowning happens silently, she discovered. And experts say it can happen in less time than it takes to load a washer with dirty laundry.
Statistics show Florida leads the nation in the drowning rate of children younger than 4 years old - killing the equivalent of nearly four preschool classrooms of children every year.
Already, the seasonal toll is starting to add up. A Dunnellon 3-year-old drowned in an inflatable pool recently, and on Feb. 21 another 3-year-old drowned in northwest Gainesville after wandering from his grandfather's home.
And while state government efforts have focused on making pools safer - requiring fences around new ones - interest is growing in teaching water survival skills to even the marginally mobile.
The American Academy of Pediatrics two years ago revised its previous position, which advised against swimming lessons until after a child's fourth birthday. Research suggests there is a benefit to earlier lessons, the academy now states.
For Harvey Barnett, who received his doctorate in psychological foundations from the University of Florida, the academy's change in position vindicated the ideas he has been testing for the past 46 years.
He has been working to prevent child drownings since he saw his infant neighbor's body being loaded into an ambulance after drowning in a drainage ditch behind his East Coast Florida home.
Barnett's Infant Swimming Resource, developed in Gainesville, has trained hundreds of thousands of young children - and now the children of some of those children - to overcome the reaction toddlers usually have to falling in water.
Usually they freeze up, don't know to close their mouths to stop the intake of water, and simply sink, he said.
The foundation of Barnett's program is simple.
"I thought, 'If a 1-year-old can walk, fall down and walk again, why can't they learn to swim?' " he said. "If they are capable of crawling on land - the left leg can oppose the right leg - then they can learn."
Last year, his program was adopted by California-based Crossfit Kids, which is partnering with select YMCAs to offer scholarships to those who might not be able to afford the classes. The program involves daily instruction over a four- to six-week period and can cost hundreds of dollars.
Mikki Martin, director of youth training for CrossFit Kids, said it was a natural fit between the swimming instruction and her organization, which seeks to develop a lifelong love for fitness.
"They have a very unique method to train kids for the unexpected," she said of Infant Swimming Resource, calling it developmentally appropriate.
Eight-month-old Micah Boyd, of Gainesville, was keeping up a steady squall of complaint recently during his water safety lesson at the Dwight H. Hunter Northeast Pool. But his mother, Devin Boyd, 30, shrugged it off - her two other children have been through it, too.
"They fuss and cry, but it's for their safety," she said.
Ilana Black, who is a master instructor for Infant Swimming Resource, breaks her lessons down into 10-minute periods that are reinforced for a stretch of days.
The short sessions accommodate toddler-sized attention spans while building muscle memory.
"You can tell someone how to ride a bike, but that won't teach them," explained Black, who has been teaching Barnett's program for 11 years. "You have to get on a bike and build that muscle memory."
She places Micah feet first in the water. His mouth closes. His blue eyes are wide open. But he pushes his head and shoulders sideways, pulls his feet to the surface and rolls onto his back.
"I love working with children," said Black, describing how she takes to heart every child drowning she reads about. "I love the cause and the difference it makes. You build close relationships."
Lisa Vanderwerf-Hourigan, director of the Office of Injury Prevention in the state Health Department, said the more pools a county has, the more young children will drown.
Legislation that passed in 2000 requires that all new pools built after 2000 have one of the following: an enclosure, a pool safety cover, exit alarms on doors, or self-closing and self-latching devices.
But the majority of the state's pools were built before 2000.
"Over 90 percent of the pools that Florida has don't have to meet the requirements," she said.
But swimming lessons might not be the answer for all children, she said, urging parents to consult with their pediatrician.
"A parent's decision about starting swimming lessons or water-survival skills training at an early age must be individualized on the basis of the child's frequency of exposure to water, emotional maturity, physical limitations and health concerns related to swimming pools," she wrote in an email.
But instructor Black said she is confident any child older than 6 months can learn.
"If they are mobile and they can get to the water, we want them to have the skills to help themselves," she said.
Joe Stokes, 41, of Gainesville, now a nurse manager for the clinical trials of the donor transplant program at Shands at the University of Florida, said he tends to agree with Black.
His children, now ages 2 and 4, started taking lessons when they were 9 months old, following in the footsteps he took at 4 years old. He was one of Barnett's students before it was called Infant Swimming Resource.
For him, the instruction is a must. Kids can sneak out of the house in the blink of an eye, he said.
"You've got to have some security knowing that they have at least a fighting chance," he said.
Meanwhile, Angela Haddock and her husband feel so strongly about it, they have donated scholarship money for children to take the classes their own children have taken since their son's death.
If a child can't float and falls in, she said, "you won't hear the child calling for help."
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