Swim, Baby, Swim! Teaching Kids Water Safety and Confidence

By Sasha Reddy

No parent wants their child to fear the water. But emboldening children without truly teaching them to navigate the water safely and independently is quite dangerous. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, drowning was the number one cause of death in children ages 1-4 as of 2016. Drowning is also largely preventable. Every day, Devon Wittenbach comes to work to teach self-rescue swim skills to children and infants. These survival swim lessons are part of the ISR® Self-Rescue Program, designed to provide children ages 6 months to 6 years the means to survive should they encounter the water alone.

For 10 minutes a day, five days a week over several weeks, each ISR participant spends time in the pool with Devon working on a particular step in a set progression of skills. First, children learn to roll over, float on top of the water, and remain floating for a duration of time. In a real-world situation, this would allow the child to rest and breathe until an adult comes to their rescue. Older children also learn to swim, float when they need to come up for air, then continue swimming, slowly making their way towards land. “I may teach children differently pending 1000 factors,” Devon says, but all children enrolled in ISR generally learn the same techniques depending on their age and abilities. Though the program is structured, the one-on-one format allows her to take each individual child’s needs into close consideration. “I make every effort to connect with them.”

It usually takes the first week of lessons for children to adjust to the structure of lessons. “They don’t know me, and they are all trying to figure out what is going on and are often being introduced to the water in a way they never have been before,” Devon explains. All the newness can make for a tearful first week or weeks, but once children learn the routine of lessons, they calm down. Devon also helps make the experience more enjoyable by cheering alongside parents, giving tons of high-fives, and leaving stickers for her participants to find by the edges of the pool. At the end of the day, the self-rescue skills obtained make the initial tears worthwhile.

“Swimming lessons are not an extracurricular activity,” Devon says. “At the most vulnerable of age, they are a life-saving, needed skill.” Though Infant Swimming Resource can make the difference between life and death, it is just one of many layers of protection parents should have in place. Devon wants all parent to be aware that active adult supervision is crucial at all times while children are in or near water, and pool fences with locks and alarms can serve as additional safety nets. Learning to administer CPR to both children and adults could change the outcome in an emergency, too. Finally, survival swim lessons are not a one-and-done thing. Follow-up lessons as children develop and grow will help keep children’s skills fresh and foster a life-long positive relationship with the water. “Once that foundation is there and maintained,” Devon adds, “as children age, it enhances their lives like CRAZY!” From Devon’s experience, both with her daughters and with the hundreds of students she’s taught, kids who learn to safely and confidently navigate the water while they’re young become even stronger and more confident swimmers as they grow.

Within the HAC community alone, there have been at least ten known cases in which ISR has potentially saved a child’s life. All of these parents will attest there’s no better decision you can make for a child.

It may have taken 5 seconds to adjust to the pool pump. When I turned back around, Max was just gone. Looking back, the aspect that scares me the most is the silence. There was no splash, no screams, or overprotective sister yelling at Max to get away from the pool. By the time I got to him, a fully clothed Max had popped to the surface, flipped to his back, and floated just like the ISR program had trained him to do.

Devon Wittenbach and ISR – if there are words to express the gratitude that Abby and I have for the skills you’ve bestowed upon my kids, I don’t know them. Hopefully, you and your family are doing well. Maisie and Max are looking forward to getting back in the pool with you, sooner rather than later.

  • Craig M.

Someone decided she wanted to jump in after the pool thermometer. Fully clothed with shoes and she floated right to the top. Luckily, I was right next to her and pulled her right out because it [was] still freezing! Thank God for [Devon]!!!!!!

  • Amanda B.

Meet Devon Wittenbach, Certified ISR Instructor

Several years ago, I had two very vivid dreams of my youngest daughter drowning. The one that sticks out most in my mind is where I was walking alongside the pool and saw her at the bottom of the pool. I forced myself to wake up after diving in to successfully pull her out of the water.

My name is Devon Wittenbach, and I have been a part of HAC’s Aquatics Department since we opened in 2007. My youngest daughter was born in 2008 and was frequently with me around the pool deck. She took many of my “mommy & me” swim classes and was almost fearless around the water. However, as she became independently mobile, I sensed that I became easily distracted by coworkers, friends, and other kids, making me keenly aware that a moment of being inattentive could end the way my dream did.

I never wanted to put my girls in a flotation device in a pool, as I felt they needed to be equipped with as much self-capability as possible. Nor would I let them play in any body of water without us in the water with them. However, at that time, teaching kids to navigate the water unassisted was something I only knew how to teach older kids…. not infants or even young toddlers.

ISR was featured on Good Morning America in 2009. It quickly became the talk around the mommy & me class. After those conversations, ISR continued to tug at the back of my mind. When the discussion started around HAC about possibly bringing the ISR program to the club, I jumped at the opportunity. Drowning is a leading cause of accidental death among children (and was my current nightmare). So, if I could have the opportunity to make a difference in changing that statistic, I wanted all the knowledge I could gain!

The training was not easy. It literally took a community of family and friends to manage my young girls’ schedules and their daily needs to allow me the time needed to become fully educated on the ISR skills. (BIG thanks to my hubby, mom and dad, sister-in-law, and several friends/coworkers). Because of their help, I am now able to teach life-saving aquatic skills to little ones and provide drowning prevention education to families. Every day I receive Google alerts about news articles worldwide that pertain to drowning prevention or rescues. And to be honest, almost every day, I see a headline or read an article that breaks my heart, knowing these skills could have made a difference for that family.

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