Safety and scrutiny: Controversial program aims to reduce young children’s risk of drowning

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/10/20

With drowning as a leading cause of death among young children, parents each year seek out the best swim safety classes for their children. One program in the Denver metro area is so popular among …

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Safety and scrutiny: Controversial program aims to reduce young children’s risk of drowning

Posted

With drowning as a leading cause of death among young children, parents each year seek out the best swim safety classes for their children.

One program in the Denver metro area is so popular among residents that it rivals community recreation centers’ own swimming programs in participation, the rec centers say.

Infant Swimming Resource, or ISR, has conducted more than 8 million self-rescue lessons nationwide since its founding in 1966 and boasts having saved 800 children, according to its website.

In the daily, 10-minute sessions, infants and toddlers are slowly taught to control their breath underwater, roll on their backs and then float if they find themselves unexpectedly in water. Those old enough to maneuver themselves are trained to find a pool’s wall.

ISR is not meant to replace other swim safety measure and the program encourages practices including constant supervision of children near water, four-sided fencing around pools, self-locking gates and alarms on any entrance to a pool.

The program is not without controversy. The American Academy of Pediatrics has not endorsed ISR because it lacks research, and some worry its methods traumatize children.

Still, parents steadfast in their support of ISR and confident in its ability to save young lives flock to the self-rescue lessons at local recreation centers, private pools and other facilities year-round.

“We are kind of the last measure against drowning,” ISR instructor Julia McDonald said. “If all of those other things fail, we are the thing that will save them if nobody else is around.”

Thankful for ISR

Unintentional drowning was the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, according to 2017 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the second leading cause of death for children 5 to 9 years old.

Roughly 1,000 children die from drowning each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Standing by the pool at the Highlands Ranch Recreation Center at Eastridge, Christy Groza pointed to the exact spot where her 4-year-old daughter Hyacinth slipped and fell in the water two years earlier.

Hyacinth received ISR training when she was younger but had not been to a class in roughly a year when the accident happened. Nonetheless, she did not panic. Instead, she immediately turned on her back and floated until a lifeguard scooped her up, Groza said.

“I was so thankful for ISR,” Groza said.

For 2-year-old Benjamin Simcik, ISR lessons are about giving him survival skills when swimming with his parents and two older siblings, his mother Laura Simcik said.

“When you’re in a pool with three kids it could be life or death so fast and it’s really scary,” she said. “He needs to know that if you’re in water you can go under really fast.”

Benjamin did some crying when he began lessons several weeks ago. By week two he could float in the water without being held. In his fifth week, Benjamin was turning on his back when let go by his instructor and kicking to the pool’s edge in seconds.

“It was a little hard to watch at first,” Simcik said of the daily lessons. “I think the consistency helped me too because I knew what to expect.”

Benjamin and Hyacinth’s instructor, Jennifer Dombrowski, has been ISR-certified for nine years and works in Highlands Ranch. She lets each student move at a pace that works for them, she said. She never allows a child to try a skill — putting their face in the water, submerging, floating — until she’s certain they’re ready, she said.

Both Dombrowski and McDonald, who is an independent contractor at the Brighton Recreation Center and teaches in Arvada, said demand is high for the program.

“Every child needs to know self-survive,” Dombrowski said. “Give each child that skill before they find themselves alone in the water.”

Facing controversy

Some in the swim community scrutinize or oppose ISR. Rumors that ISR instructors toss children in pools shroud the program reputation. Some say ISR’s practice of having children swim fully clothed, to prepare for real-world emergencies, is traumatic.

Castle Rock swim instructor Russ Marsh, who owns Smilefish Swim School, said former ISR students have come to him afraid of the water, which he believes is because of the ISR training.

“I think it’s horrible, because I get kids that come to me that are 3 or 4 years old that are terrified,” he said. “They’re scared to death of the water. Not all of them, but too many.”

He’d prefer the youngest of swimmers undergo parent-taught classes, where parents are in the pool learning alongside infants and toddlers. It provides an important layer of comfort for children, Marsh said, who began as a swim coach in 1972 and coached for 35 years, including several at the University of Colorado. He switched to running swim lessons 15 years ago.

And ISR is not endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics because it lacks any studies conducted by peer-reviewed journals.

AAP spokeswoman Sarah Denny has served on the organization’s council for Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention for seven years. The general pediatrician was also lead author on the AAP’s policy statement for drowning prevention.

“At this time, we do not endorse ISR because there’s no evidence to show that ISR is effective in preventing drowning,” Denny said. “There is absolutely no evidence around ISR.”

Denny said she isn’t sure why studies are not available on the program, but it leaves AAP without the necessary information to take a stance on ISR. A spokesperson for ISR could not be reached for comment.

Parents of children in ISR told Colorado Community Media they either were not aware of the criticism toward ISR or were not swayed by it. Firsthand experience, they said, earned their faith in the program.

“Some parents can’t handle their kids crying and they mistake that for being scared,” Groza said. “Just because your kid cries doesn’t mean they’re scared. It could just mean that they’re a 2-year-old and they don’t want to do something.”

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