The American Academy of Pediatrics says there's an ideal time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has revised its recommendations to prevent drowning in children. The new guidelines say that parents should start teaching their babies how to swim as soon as they reach one year of age. From the AAP's policy statement, published in Pediatrics in March 2019:
Drowning is the leading cause of injury death among children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, and the third leading cause of unintentional death injury among children aged 5 to 19. Nearly 1,000 children die every year by drowning, and the highest risk age groups are toddlers (0 to 4 years) and adolescents (15 to 19 years).
"In contrast, infants younger than 1 year are developmentally unable to learn the complex movements, such as breathing, necessary to swim. They may manifest reflexive swimming movement under the water but cannot effectively raise their heads to breathe. There is no evidence to suggest that infant swimming programs for those younger than 1 year are beneficial."
For toddlers, the greatest risk is "lack of barriers to prevent unanticipated, unsupervised access to water, including in swimming pools, hot tubs and spas, bathtubs, natural bodies of water, and standing water in homes (buckets, tubs, and toilets)." For adolescents, it's over-confidence in their ability to swim, often paired with alcohol use, impulsive behavior, and underestimation of risk.
The AAP states that every child should be taught how to swim, but that parents should understand that water safety does not end with lessons:
"Although swim lessons provide 1 layer of protection from drowning, swim lessons do not 'drown proof' a child, and parents must continue to provide barriers to prevent unintended access when not in the water and closely supervise children when in and around water."
The guidelines offer additional recommendations to adults, including not leaving a child in the care of another child while in water; not leaving a child alone in a bathroom or near buckets of water; staying within arm's length in a pool or lake; and not getting distracted by conversations when a child is in the water.
Remember, it's never too late to learn how to swim. While one year might be the ideal age, that doesn't mean you shouldn't start lessons at a later age.