When Christine Gibson was 5 years old, she fell into her parents’ swimming pool, unable to swim. Her mother found her floating in the water.
Gibson survived, but the experience of nearly drowning has stuck with her into adulthood, and it’s made her intent on making sure it doesn’t happen to her 9-month-old twin daughters, Samantha and Madison.
“It’s huge,” she said.
She and her husband, Alan, came across YouTube videos showing a bold technique designed to prevent infants as young as 6 months old from drowning: Instructors place them face-down into the water and allow them to flip themselves over and float on their backs. The idea is to teach children who fall into water to rest in a safe position until they’re rescued .
Kirk Weatherby learned about the technique while he and his wife were searching for swimming lessons for their daughter, who was 6 months old at the time. Like the Gibsons, they found infant survival videos online.
“We were just blown away,” he said. “We didn’t know that kids were capable of doing that at such a young age.”
The problem was he couldn’t find anyone in Central Oregon who specialized in the survival training. The solution: He’d do it himself. This time last summer, he had just graduated from a six-week training program in Colorado led by an infant water survival company called Infant Aquatics.
He converted the garage of his modest, northeast Bend home into an indoor pool room, and opened his business, Little Splashers Swim Academy, in September.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Christine and Alan Gibson cheered and shot cell phone videos from plastic chairs near the pool as they watched Kirk work with their twins one-by-one. It was their second lesson. Both girls wailed as Weatherby held them at their waists and carried them through the water. Madison was first. Crying and slapping the water with an open hand, she suddenly became silent when she sensed it was time to go under. After some struggling and kicking, she was able to pull her head out of the water, flip herself over and float on her back.
“They’re doing awesome,” Christine whispered with a smile, Samantha watching on from her lap.
Training catching on
Infant survival training is not a new idea, but its popularity is spreading internationally as more people learn about it, Weatherby said. Water safety is especially important in Central Oregon, where the landscape is dotted with rivers, lakes, canals, ponds and pools, he said.
“You can’t escape it, it’s everywhere,” Weatherby said. “It’s such a big part of our lives here.”
Weatherby appears to have landed in a sweet spot; his classes are booked solid. Once his current students graduate, he’ll have put more than 40 kids through his one-on-one programs, which take students as young as 6 months old. For kids less than 1 year old, the classes are purely survival training, as Weatherby said research shows kids younger than 1 are too young to learn to swim. For kids older than one, the classes are a mixture of survival training and traditional swimming lessons.
The classes aren’t cheap. Infant survival, a four-week program held four days a week, costs $320 plus a $60 registration fee. For the older kids, it’s $480 plus the $60 registration fee.
The infant survival classes are only 10 minutes long. That’s because at that age, attention spans don’t last much longer than 10 minutes, Weatherby said. In addition, kids learn from repetition, so keeping a class short and full of repeated drills is the best way for a child to learn, he said. Once kids hit 4, they move up to 20-minute lessons.
Throughout the programs, the children gradually don more and more clothing as they learn to flip over in the water. This is meant to simulate an actual drowning event, Weatherby said. They start out in a swimsuit and then move to shorts and a T-shirt, then a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and then add a sweatshirt. Kids 1 and older graduate by flipping over in a snowsuit, he said. For kids younger than 1, they graduate in heavy fleece pajamas, or something lighter than a snowsuit.
“So no matter what clothing they’re wearing if they fall in, they’ve done it before,” Weatherby said.
Experts stress supervision
Drowning prevention experts at hospitals, however, offer a much more cautionary perspective compared with Weatherby’s reverence for the technique.
Linda Quan, a pediatric emergency physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and professor at University of Washington School of Medicine, has spent her career researching drowning prevention strategies. When it comes to the flip and float method, she said simply that no research has been published demonstrating its effectiveness, so it’s impossible to know whether it works.
Even if it’s anecdotally made a difference for some kids, that does not mean it will be safe or effective for everyone, she said.
“I wouldn’t put a nickel on it, much less my child’s life,” she said.
Quan said her biggest fear with respect to the technique is that it will make parents feel overconfident that their child is safe in or near the water. She said the most important drowning prevention technique is supervision.
“Around water, it’s a job,” she said.
Ben Hoffman, the medical director at the Tom Sargent Safety Center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, agreed that supervision is critical, and it’s not an easy task.
“Anybody who has kids will tell you that the supervision is tricky because they’re fast and they’re impulsive,” he said.
Hoffman said he shares Quan’s concern that parents could let their guards down around water if their kids take drowning prevention classes.
“If one child gets hurt because parents change the way the supervision was on that child, that’s one too many,” he said.
As with anything, Hoffman said he simply needs data on the technique’s effectiveness before he would recommend it to parents. Similarly, although research has proven swimming lessons between the ages of 1 and 4 can decrease the risk of drowning, that evidence didn’t accumulate until 2010. Before that, Hoffman said he didn’t recommend any children under 4 learn to swim.
“Now that there is proof, we can say with some degree of confidence that that’s a good idea,” he said.
Quan said there are also concerns that the technique, which involves repeatedly submerging infants, could be traumatizing and cause them to fear water later on.
“Are these the kids that when they’re 3, 4 or 5 will go to swim lessons and put up a kicking, screaming fight because they’re terrified?” she said.
‘They’re just calm’
For Weatherby, though, all of the children he’s seen learn to flip, swim and be comfortable in the water have convinced him it works. His 2-year-old daughter, for example, went through the program when she was 13 months old. Now, she’s an “absolute fish” who loves to experiment with new swimming techniques, he said.
Even during his training in Colorado, Weatherby said he witnessed impressive transformations. The group would teach about 30 kids per day.
“It’s amazing, just watching these kids change from being super timid and afraid of the water to just being super confident, launching themselves into the water, just fearless,” he said. “They’re just calm.”
And the benefits go beyond just swimming, Weatherby said. The kids are more confident and social afterward, he said.
Regardless of which techniques are best, parents, swimming instructors and doctors all want the same thing: fewer kids drowning in preventable situations. Unintentional injuries are the most common cause of death for kids ages 1 through 4, and drowning is the most common unintentional injury they suffer followed by car accidents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s like America goes through the roof on car seat safety,” Weatherby said. “You can’t even leave the hospital until your car seat is in properly, and then no one does anything about water. I’m trying to change that.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0304,