Are baby swim survival lessons the answer to child drownings?

There are no parents in the pool, no singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and definitely no floaties or kickboards. Babies and toddlers are required to attend lessons five days a week for up to eight weeks and are made to save themselves from drowning while dressed in full winter clothing, including a nappy.

Rachelle Beesley admits the baby aquatic survival classes she and her husband Richard run are intense, but insists they get results in a way regular "mums and bubs" swimming lessons cannot.

"Babies do cry at our pool because we are pushing them outside their comfort zone and that is their only way of communicating,'' Rachelle says. "It's hard for parents for the first couple of weeks to watch their baby cry, but when they start seeing results they know they are doing the right thing for their child. I would prefer to hear a baby cry during our lessons, than not hear them cry ever again because they have drowned at the bottom of a pool."

Toddler water safety is back in the headlines this week due to a horrific start to summer, with three children already drowning this month in NSW alone. Hearing about such deaths upsets Rachelle as she believes regular swimming lessons are not providing children with adequate survival skills at the age at which they most need them.

"Children who go to swimming lessons week in, week out for years will eventually learn to swim but it won't be until they are about five-years-old, and by then they usually have the common sense not to get themselves in dangerous situations in the first place. It's toddlers who don't yet have that common sense but can walk and climb and get themselves into trouble that need survival skills,'' she says.

"We don't claim to drown-proof babies, but we give them the very best chance of survival if they happen to fall into the water unexpectedly. It's like having a childseat in your car. It doesn't guarantee they wont be injured in a crash, but it gives them the best possible protection."

Rachelle and husband Richard have been holding Infant Swim Resource (or ISR) courses for more than a decade in the southern Sydney suburb of Lilli Pilli. Their Kids Aquatic Survival School now has franchises in Balgowlah, Figtree, Coogee and Kiama.

The intense two month course teaches babies and toddlers to instinctively get to the side of a pool to get themselves out of trouble and, if they cannot reach the edge, to float on their back until help arrives. Children attend lessons five times a week, but the classes are only ten minutes long.

"We keep the lessons short because they are very tiring for the children,'' Rachelle says. "It's not like regular swimming classes where a child might spend two minutes out of a half hour class actually in the water and the rest of the time sitting on the edge waiting for their turn. We work them hard for the whole lesson, so ten minutes is long enough."

Once the ISR program is completed, the school then offers transition lessons once a week which teach children to swim while continuing to reinforce their survival skills.

The method is not without its critics, with some describing the methods employed during ISR training as cruel and saying it could leave children with a fear of water.

But mother Doreen Millena, whose 19-month-old son William recently completed the course, believes those claims are ridiculous. She describes the results Rachelle and Richard achieve with babies and toddlers as "absolutely incredible" and says she is so thankful she came across their course for her son.

Doreen took William to the Rachelle's classes after she was asked by a regular swim school to take her son out of the baby swim class because he was becoming too upset during lessons.

"I knew I had to do something because we have a pool and a boat, so him not learning water survival skills was just not an option,'' she says. "Yes, he did cry during lessons with Rachelle, and I'll admit that after a couple of weeks I wondered whether I was doing the right thing by taking him.

"But then one day I took him into our jacuzzi and all of a sudden he let go and could swim from one side to the other. He was laughing and playing and really enjoying the water like he had never done before."

Doreen said the cost of $140 per week for the eight week course might seem expensive, but compared with how much she would have spent on regular swimming lessons in the long term it worked out fairly even.

"At the end of the day you are paying for a skill. Rachelle and Richard are able to provide that skill more quickly than a normal swimming school, so I was happy to pay the money,'' she said. "I only wish all children had access to this kind of course as I believe it has probably saved children's lives, and could save more."

For more information about the survival courses: http://www.infantswim.com.au/

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