By Allison MacLean, Photography by Nick Trail
Travel north on Highway 77, take a right on White Oaks Drive, roll your window down and listen for the sound of a screaming baby or child. Follow that sound to a backyard pool and you’ll be relieved to know everything is okay. With summer quickly approaching, Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) lessons are in full swing.
There were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States from 2005-2014, according to the Center of Disease Control. About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 years and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries, a report states.
ISR offers one-on-one water survival training designed for children 6 months to 6 years old. Yes, you read that correctly—6 months! ISR is not a new trend; it has been around for 45 years. According to ISR records, more than 260,000 children have been trained in aquatic safety. There are more than 800 documented cases of children using their ISR skills to save themselves from drowning. In Bay County, we have two certified ISR instructors— Susannah St. Peter and Michelle Waldrip. Their mission is to ensure “Not One More Child Drowns.”
Both of my children completed the ISR program last year. Within six weeks, they went from kicking and screaming in absolute resistance to swimming and floating in complete confidence. I found it difficult to watch both children reach and cry for me for the first week or so, especially my 3-year-old who could verbalize her concerns. But the instructors work in a way that doesn’t allow time for negotiating. They are extremely strategic and took time to learn how both of my children tick psychologically. By making a huge deal out of the small accomplishments, my daughter steadily gained confidence and, by week two, was looking forward to her lessons! And with consistency, my 1-year-old learned to float no matter what way he fell into the pool. As a parent who has ‘survived’ ISR, I can say that it is well worth the fight to know your child will have the ability to save his or herself from drowning. ISR lessons worked so well for me and my family, I was anxious to speak with other parents to get their views on the program.
When I visited one of the two ISR training locations in Bay County for this interview, I watched the parents of 14-month old Roen as they were seated on the cushioned bench just a few feet away from the pool, their eyes fixed on their daughter and the ISR instructor. Roen’s twin sister, Lynnox, sat next to them. Roen’s face turned brighter shades of red—not from the heat of the sun but from trying to cope with the water as the instructor was holding her in place. Roen struggled, and her natural reflex was to resist. The Vann girls were in week two of their training. Lynnox knew that Roen would be out of the water shortly, and then it would be her turn. In ten-minutes time, the switch was made. Roen was carefully handed back to her parents; her crying stopped immediately. Lynnox was handed over to the instructor and a new chorus of shrieking began. It is not easy to watch your child struggle.
While taking turns toweling off and changing the girls back into their clothes after their lessons, Melissa and Chadwick Vann took turns answering my questions.
What is your motivation for selecting ISR lessons for your children?
Parents: It’s important to us that our girls learn about water safety, especially since we live on lakefront property and their grandparents have a pool. We want them to enjoy the water and, more importantly, know how to help themselves if they were to fall in.
Explain the feelings you have when you are watching your children during an ISR session.
Parents: The feelings are very mixed. Yes, it’s sad to hear them cry for “mama” or “dada” and it makes us want to immediately help them, but we know that they are learning very important skills. So, we push those feelings aside and show our support and cheer them on. They look to us for a reaction and we want this to end up being a positive experience for them. To show any other feelings or over-dramatize would defeat the purpose.
What would you say to the people who ask, “Why are you torturing your child with these lessons?”
Parents: We want Roen and Lynnox to be shown a healthy respect for water. ISR instills that respect. We would encourage people to come see an actual lesson and not just get their information from videos they have watched online or on social media. How could teaching children to float when they fall in the water be torturous when it could possibly save their life?
Parents and instructors are determined to keep the children safe and prepare them for the worst-case scenario. Subjecting a child to an extreme situation is the best way to teach the skills to survive a possible accidental fall into the water. How do the instructors work through the fits and screams, and work with scared children? Michelle Waldrip and Susannah St. Peter provide insights.
Why is there so much screaming going on during ISR lessons?
Instructors: Well, keep in mind, this is the beginning of a new group that you’re seeing today. These kids are just starting week two. Many children do stop crying once they are skilled and in control of the situation. But they are not fussing because they are hurt, afraid, or in pain (instructors are trained to monitor vitals throughout the lesson). They cry because they are in a new environment and with a new person. The child is most likely reacting to the stress of being in a situation he or she has never been in before. And, keep in mind, along with pushing psychological limits, they are also being challenged physically— learning new skills, using muscles in new ways as they learn to float or move through the water. Crying is their way of communicating that frustration, uncertainty, and stress.
How is ISR different from typical swim lessons?
Instructors: ISR’s focus is on drowning prevention and water survival, not simply learning to swim. Your child’s ability to survive an accidental fall into the water depends on its ability to orient itself in the water, get a breath, and keep breathing until it can be rescued or swim out on its own.
Instructors: Any parent knows that no two children are alike. Every child has his or her own level of physical skill, temperament, and way of learning. Each ISR lesson is individually designed and taught to your child to their specific needs. The goal of each lesson is to learn more and more, but always remain within the boundaries of that child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. To do that, I may have to trim a child’s lesson down to seven or eight minutes a day, if that’s all it can handle. And in some cases, it may take a child an extra week or two to master a skill. And that’s okay.
How do you teach a 6-month-old to hold his or her breath under water?
Instructors: Controlled breathing can be easily taught using a series of signals and reinforcements. You can often see a single small bubble in the nostril and know that the child is holding its breath. It’s very cool because it’s a skill we’re all born with. It takes a little training to make a child realize, ‘Hey, I have to stop that water from coming in my mouth.’ Babies quickly learn to manipulate their tongue to block water flow. This tongue movement is very similar to when a baby latches on during breast- or bottle-feeding. If you study pictures, most babies’ mouths are open under water, but they are not taking in water because of that seal they created with the tongue.
What do you say to parents who hear of water survival training, but dismiss it as unnecessary because they don’t have a pool or live near water?
Instructors: I would tell them in the US drowning is the number one killer of infants and toddlers under the age of four. And yet, 56% of parents believe that their child is not at risk for an accidental unsupervised fall into the water. In the Bay County area, we are surrounded by water. Your child will be near water—if not a lake or pool, then maybe an inflatable pool in a friend’s backyard or a retention pond down the street. The water does not have to be deep at all for a child to drown. And, unfortunately, it only takes a few unsupervised seconds for a tragedy to happen.
Is there a standard test or challenge that ISR pupils must pass to graduate?
Instructors: Yes, depending on age, the child can either roll back to float (after a staged fall into the pool) or swim-float-swim unassisted. We have children perform these skills fully clothed. This shows that they are prepared to know what to do in the case of an accidental fall into a body of water.
Explain the transformation you see in a child and its relationship with water.
Instructors: Nothing compares to the change in each child. Seeing a 7-month-old baby float independently for the first time still gives me chill bumps. Every. Time. Children of every age learn to be aquatic problem solvers. As a result, the children are confident and enjoy and respect the water. For the parents, once they get through the tough beginning, they will have the greatest benefit knowing they have provided their child with survival skills.
For more information about ISR lessons, email Susannah St. Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org or Michelle Waldrip at email@example.com. St. Peter holds her lessons at the Frank Brown Aquatic Center. Waldrip’s lessons are held at her home in Southport. You can also contact them via Facebook.
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