There is no debate the #1 reason parents enroll their children in swimming lessons is to enhance their child’s safety in and around the water.
However, before, during and even upon completion of the learn-to-swim process, parents may consider having their child use a flotation aid as means to provide added security against their child accidentally drowning.
A variety of flotation aids designed to suit children of different ages and at different stages of the learn-to-swim process (including armbands, backpacks, vests and noodles) are available. In my role as a swim instructor, I feel I have a good understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each type of flotation device from the perspectives of both learning-to-swim and safety.
Flotation Aids Are Not a Life-saving Device
First and foremost, it is important that parents understand that flotation aids are not a life-saving device, and that they are not an excuse for the absence of constant supervision while the child is in the water!
Unfortunately, too many children drown each year in Australia, and the majority of these tragedies occur as a result of the child falling accidentally into a body of water. While no drowning’s with the child using a “wearable-type” flotation aid have been recorded, the use of a flotation aid may create a misplaced sense of child’s confidence in water in both the parent and the child.
The Use of Flotation Aids Should be Practised
The parent should allocate time with their child for practising a routine in which they let the child reach for the flotation device before removing it from them. This kind of play allows the child to test their ability to manoeuvre themselves in the water and teaches them their limitations without the aid.
A balanced approach to the use of a flotation aid helps prevent the child from becoming dependent on the aid, and helps increase their chance of being able to return to safety without a reliance on the aid.
In turn, parents become more aware of their child’s capabilities in the water. Flotation aids such as kickboards can be incorporated as an education tool into a swim program. Apart from adding variety to a lesson, they can be used to assist a child to learn buoyancy and independence, and to gain confidence in the water.
Swim schools have the capacity to educate the parent and the child on the correct and incorrect way to use a flotation aid, and how to make use of the aid away from lessons to promote the swimming skills being worked on by the child’s swimming instructor.
Wearable Flotation Aids
Wearable-type flotation aids include arm bands (aka ‘floaties’) and layered foam backpacks (aka ‘bubbles’) . Armbands may be used in a swim lesson to assist a child to learn independence and gain confidence in the water by reducing the child’s reliance on the parent.
However, arm bands tend to place swimmers in an upright, vertical position which not only encourages a bicycle kick, but also discourages the child from submerging or placing their face in the water. Armbands also limit body rotation and impede arm movement. Deflating the arm band allows for increased movement, but always check that the level of inflation is appropriate, and the armband inflation mechanism is securely sealed.
Layered foam backpacks or flotation vests, which allow arm rotation, can be worn on a swimmer’s back or front to assist the child to maintain the correct body position and to provide support as the child seeks to learn independent breathing. The layers of foam on the backpack or vest can be removed as the swimmer is seen to require less assistance, which provides for an interesting graduated learning process.
When using flotation aids of this type, by sure the child’s breathing is not inhibited by the aid as too many layers of foam, particularly in the case of an infant who may not have sufficient neck strength to lift their head independently, can force their head into the water.
Insufficient layers will not allow the child the support required to hold their head out of the water to draw a breath. Flotation vests and backpacks must be fitted securely and in a way that does not interfere with breathing, as it may occur if the vest is too large and rides up over the child’s head.
Noodle Flotation Aids
The flotation aids of the noodle type, as mentioned above, are used regularly at swim schools in a variety of learn to swim activities and strokes. They are often placed either under the waist/hips or around lower back to assist body position, or under the armpits to provide support for the upper body of the child.
As noodles are not a wearable-type of flotation aid, swimmers are liable to slip from these aids without warning. Buoyancy in terms of the use of a noodle can be modified by reducing its length, and when using noodles as a flotation aid swimmers should be encouraged to kick towards the surface of the water and to place their face in the water, and to maintain a horizontal body position.
Flotation Aids Should be Discarded as the Child Progresses and Their Skills are Fine-tuned
All flotation aids should either be taken off (in case of a vest) or removed from the pool area after use to discourage the child from re-entering the pool.
When using a flotation aid, parents need to be aware of external influences such as waves, currents and other swimmers which, depending on the situation, may affect the operation of the aid and the safety of the child.
Notwithstanding the utmost importance of ensuring a child is constantly supervised in the water irrespective of whether or not they are using a flotation aid, the correct and moderate use of a flotation aid can assist with a child’s aquatic development.