Local doctor prescribes swim lessons for babies

Chandler pediatrician Dr. Judy Pendleton is one of many in the Valley who write prescriptions for swimming lessons for infants, starting as young as 6 months old. (Special to AFN)

A Chandler pediatrician and other Valley doctors are writing unusual prescriptions that do not have to do with medicine but could save babies and children’s lives.

Dr. Judy Pendleton, owner of Pendleton Pediatrics at 1445 W. Chandler Blvd., is among about 20 to 25 doctors in the Valley giving parents prescriptions urging them to enroll their babies in swimming lessons.

Lana Whitehead, one of the originators and the president of SWIMkids USA, a swimming lessons business in Mesa, is thrilled doctors are educating parents about swim safety for their little ones.

Whitehead is president of the national Water Smart Babies program, through which pediatricians write prescriptions for babies to get swim lessons.

The program also teaches parents about safety measures including fencing around pools, the need for adult supervision of kids around water and CPR classes.

Pendleton and other doctors around the country give parents paper prescriptions to stress the importance of swim lessons.

She said since 2014 she has been writing the water safety prescriptions starting when babies come for their 6-month-old check-up and then again when they are 9 months old.

Pendleton said babies physically could start swimming lessons at 6 months because their neck is strong enough and because they are regulated with sleep and developmentally.

“I think pediatricians are all about preventative medicine,” Pendleton said. “If you intervene early you can spare a lot of problems, illnesses. We stress safety and early intervention with reading and water safety. We’re all about stopping something before it becomes a problem and promoting healthy habits. It’s definitely a perfect setting: a pediatrician’s office.”

She said when the babies return for a check-up at 9 months, she asks the parents if their young sons or daughters are enrolled in swim lessons. Pendleton asks them again about it when the kids are older, too.

“When something happens in the news it makes them more aware and vigilant,” she said.

Pendleton said by the nine-month-old appointment most of the parents who visit her practice have enrolled their baby in swim classes.

Whitehead is considered a pioneer in the swim-float-swim technique aimed at helping people stay safer in the water.

Children kick in the water while in a prone position for several seconds and then rotate onto their back, where they can rest and breathe.

They can keep repeating that technique until they arrive safely at the side of a pool or the shore of a lake or ocean. Whitehead is passionate about saving lives by teaching vital water survival skills to babies, children and adults in a nurturing environment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated its drowning prevention guidelines and now recommends to pediatricians around the country that youths start swim lessons when they are a year old.

“There are many, many people working on this,” Whitehead said. “We all work together on drowning prevention. A lot of people have been concerned about this for a long time. Drowning is so unnecessary. A perfectly healthy; beautiful child within minutes their lives are ruined or they’re dead.”

SWIMkids USA provides free Water Smart Infants classes for babies 6 months old to age 2 (accompanied by a parent) and free CPR classes.

“We are teaching these people what they can do in the water and hopefully (will) save lives,” Whitehead said. “We teach them about supervision.”

She said a parent or supervisor should always be within arm’s length of a child that is in the water, even if the child has taken swim lessons.

Arizona ranked second highest in total media reported deadly drownings among children ages 15 and younger in pools and spas in 2017, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely campaign in conjunction with the USA Swimming Foundation.

In 2017, 25 deadly child drownings of youths ages 15 and under in pools and spas in Arizona were reported. In 2016, there were 24 media reported children ages 15 and under who drowned and died in pools and spas in Arizona, the campaign and foundation reported.

Florida reported 51 kids under 15 drowned in pools and spas in 2017.

People can find recommended swimming pools to enroll their children for swim lessons on the Water Smart Babies Program website. These swim schools are ones that conform to county standards, including having lifeguards on duty, Whitehead said.

She has written several books about teaching babies and children to swim and how movement helps babies and children learn.

A grandmother of six and parent of three sons, Whitehead said she was asked by Kim Burgess, founder and previous executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, to write a position paper on how she runs a nurturing swim program.

Burgess helped her write it, explaining how doctors could help with the drowning prevention efforts. The paper led to the formation of the Water Smart Babies program. The Florida Pediatric Society adopted the program and Florida doctors also offer water safety education to parents when their babies come for visits.

Some mothers of young children who also work at SWIMkids USA said it is important for youths to learn to swim early on.

Melina Pena, of Chandler, who works at SWIMkids USA’s front desk, has taken her children for swim lessons at the Mesa swim school.

She said three out of her four children liked the water, but her youngest, Brycen, 2, did not enjoy the water initially. Her other children, Ruthy, also 2; and Elijah, 10; and Isabel, 8; also have taken swim lessons.

“I’ve been coming here for years, especially when I had the two youngest and they were babies,” Pena said. “It’s definitely my biggest concern. There’s pools everywhere. For me, I definitely want to make sure we have those skills. They (instructors) teach them how to turn around, to get back on their back and float and get in their airplane (position).”

Angie Smith, also of Chandler, is a swim instructor at SWIMkids USA and her children, Jedidiah, now 3, and Shayne, 7, have taken swim lessons there.

Her daughter, Shayne, no longer takes swim classes but both children started swim lessons at 3 months old.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful and it’s so beneficial for them developmentally,” Smith said. “It was really helpful and it made me feel a lot more comfortable, even getting them baths at home.”

To learn more about Water Smart Babies program, visit watersmartbabies.com

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