Surf the Internet for “swimming babies” and dozens of links will pop up — from videos of infants gliding under water into a parent’s arms to links to classes for teaching the tiniest tots to save themselves after falling into a backyard swimming pool. 

The videos may be cute and the classes are certainly tempting: Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death among children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A little one can drown in anything from a bucket to a bathtub, though she’s most at risk in a swimming pool, even when she’s with adult swimmers. But is it really a good idea to try to teach a baby "survival swimming" or water "self-rescue"?

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Water babies

Infant swim classes typically are designed to teach babies 6 months to 1 year who can sit on their own skills for saving themselves if they topple into water: how to hold their breath under water, keep their eyes open and roll onto their backs to float until help arrives, for example.

Images of infants flipping onto their backs in water are breathtaking. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse swim classes for babies. One concern is that although a little one may learn how to hold her breath under water, she won't necessarily do that when she’s in danger and you’re not around.

“It’s unknown whether swim lessons for children under one are helpful or harmful,” says Beth Ebel, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. “There are no studies to suggest that immersing infants in water without arms-length supervision is safe.”

Another concern is parents may get a false sense of security. “We worry there will be a mismatch between a parent’s confidence and vigilance and a baby’s ability to save herself,” explains Ebel, who’s a member of the AAP’s committee for injury, violence and poison prevention.

Related: Drowning Rescues: The Danger Isn’t Over When You’re Saved

When can a kid earn her fins?

The AAP says the decision to teach a child how to stay safe in water — to float or dog paddle, say — should depend upon her emotional maturity, physical ability and how often she’s around water. “She should be able to follow directions,” adds Ebel. That’s a developmental milestone that usually happens around 2 or 3.

Even if she can keep her head above water, your little one should wear a life jacket in or near pools, lakes and other swimming venues. Never rely on water wings or floaties, which won’t keep her head above water and may allow her to drift into deeper water.

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As for formal swim instruction, the AAP recommends starting swimming lessons for children at around age 4. "Being able to swim is an important life skill," says Ebel. Research has shown most kids can master movement skills in the water by age 4 and learn the front crawl by age 5 or 6. 

Once a child can float or even swim well, it’s still vital to watch her at all times, stresses the AAP. That means while she’s in the pool or other large body of water, stay off your cell phone and put that engrossing beach read aside.

“Many parents don’t realize how rapidly — and quietly — a child can get into trouble in water,” says Ebel. 

Catherine Winters is a freelance writer who specializes in health.