Expert Warns of the Dark Side of Survival Swimming Programs

Alicia Bayer, Mankato Attachment Parenting Examiner – July 22, 2010


Swim expert Rob McKay makes sure that his tiny students feel safe and happy during lessons Photo courtesy Rob McKay


Some parents have told me that they have their kids in “Survival Swimming” classes because they believe the life-saving skills are worth the trauma to their children. Do you agree?


Baby swimming can and should be a beautiful experience from day one. The benefits are numerous both during the actual class and long term.


Our baby students are very excited about coming to class; this is a good barometer for parents to know whether or not their class is on the right track and child centered. The skin to skin, eye to eye, contact in the water allows for an ideal bonding experience with your child and other like minded parents and children.

I receive reports often, via email and telephone about disturbing extreme “reactionary” programs like the one you described. Survival lessons are normally very skill oriented without much regard for the child.


Baby swim programs should be consistent with land based programs following sound early childhood education. Would you attend a pre-school or gymnastics class where the majority of babies were screaming, throwing up or not being allowed to breath until they perform a skill? These places would be shut down by the authorities.


My questions are:


  1. How could an adult with any conscience do this to a child and even more astounding, get away with it?!!! The aggressive swim teachers convince themselves and justify their actions that they are doing a good thing because they are “saving children’s lives.” We all want to keep our children safe, but not while doing more harm than good and often with devastating consequences to the



  1. How could any parent in their right mind allow someone to do this to their child? They have often been convinced through intimidation with such phrases as “It is better that your child cry now, than you cry later,” inferring that their child will drown if they don’t take swim lessons from that program or teacher. Another phrase is “This is the only way that they will learn.” (not true).


Of course crying, choking, gagging or vomiting are NOT prerequisites to learning how to swim. The majority of programs in the US and the world are very child friendly and have the parents in the water enjoying the lessons with their child.


These abusive lessons are hideous and ironically totally unnecessary.


I have been fighting this battle now since 1982 and on my web site since 1998.


These types of abusive lessons are going on all over the country, but especially in the Sun Belt states of Florida, California, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. Several of the large franchises promise lucrative careers to their franchisees, all at the expense of defenseless babies being manipulated and abused against their will. Some prospective franchisees are often unaware of the abusive techniques employed. Many are asked “Can you stand babies screaming?”


You-tube videos showing back floating babies are the current rage of the Internet. Of course they are showing only the end result, they conveniently fail to show the harsh methods and means (and I mean MEANs) to achieve these ends.


It has been my hope that someone famous or with clout that has experienced, witnessed or heard of this abuse would speak out about this or let the media know what is going on. These aggressive swim programs thrive by marketing the threat of drowning babies, over and over again, putting terror in the minds of parents and the media breeding fear, intimidation and guilt.


When confronted by a whistle blower, abusive programs and teachers ALWAYS cite the testimonials of parents whose babies were saved from drowning, due to the skills learned in the lesson. This is how they perpetuate themselves. I am always relieved when a child has survived a near drowning. What they don’t tell you is that there are many avenues to water safety and drowning prevention that are grounded in common sense supervision, barriers, CPR, home pool safety plans, etc. as well as age and developmentally appropriate swim lessons, that do teach safety skills.


These abusive programs often try to discredit the people who speak the truth. Some parents actually convince themselves that the lessons where wonderful, failing to recognize and acknowledge their child’s point of view of the experience. Often babies think that they are drowning in the lessons. This is extremely frightening for them. Would the parents or even the abusive teacher allow themselves to be put through this harrowing ordeal?


The abusive swim lessons violate the teaching guidelines of the World Aquatic Baby Swimming Congress and the National Swim School Association (though some teachers ignore the


guidelines, especially those teaching imposed back float to babies). The America Red Cross and national YMCA do not condone these types of aggressive lessons.


However, there are many pro-active positive ways to prevent drowning and learn to swim that are very healthy and happy. There are many happy private swim schools, YMCA and Red Cross programs. Go watch. Are the children excited when they see the pool or are they screaming and trying to escape? Are they being forced to float on their backs? Or are they repeatedly submerged without regard to whether they are successfully holding their breath or happy?


While the vast majority of babies in our swim school come to us first and love their lessons, we also deprogram babies from programs like the one your described. I witnessed a lesson several weeks ago in Pompano Beach, where I thought the lady was going to drown the frantic baby. I was with an attorney who is also the father of a one year old girl; he could not believe what he was seeing. The teacher was totally oblivious to the child’s desperate pleas and repeatedly submerged the hysterical child and then forced him on his back. This can result in are many untold and unintended negative consequences. We see traumatized babies who come to us that have had nightmares, began stuttering, pull out their hair and scream at the sight of a pool, as a result of abusive swim lessons. Some assume the fetal position when entering the pool and refuse to make eye contact. These poor souls are in pretty sad shape by the time we see them. It breaks my heart to see this and to know that these teachers are getting away with murder.


What long-term negative effects have you witnessed in children who were part of “Survival Swimming” classes?


Fear of water, fear of teachers, fear of learning. Stuttering, screaming at the sight of a pool, nightmares, pulling out hair, throwing up, post traumatic stress syndrome. Mistrust of parents. Mistrust of teachers and learning environments, Great difficultly learning to swim when older due to fear. Should I go on?  It’s very sad, isn’t it?


Of course most parents who put their kids in these lessons are not aware of the consequences until it is too late.


Some kids fly through these types of lessons unscathed, they are the lucky ones. Some may even learn how to swim despite these harsh methods. Of course good solid teaching methods, nurturing parents and a skilled gentle teacher are certainly better.


What “red flags” would you advise parents to be on the lookout for, regarding swimming programs for young children?


Look for kids crying at the site of the swim school you are visiting. If your kids cry on the way to lessons something is wrong. If you kids cry in the lesson something is wrong. The children should be excited and happy about going to class, being in class and about learning to swim.