For young children aged 1 to 4 years, formal swimming lessons lower the risk of them drowning, researchers report.

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that all children be taught to swim after age 5, but does not recommend for or against swimming lessons in younger children because of a lack of data. The new study, however, points to a marked reduction in drowning risk among preschoolers who were taught how to swim.

For their research, Dr. Ruth A. Brenner, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Maryland and colleagues studied the association between drowning and swimming lessons in children and adolescents age 1 to 19 in six states.

They interviewed 88 families of children who drowned and 213 "control" families of children who were the same age and sex and lived in the same county as those who had drowned.

Among children aged 1 to 4 years, they found that only 2 of the 61 who had drowned (3 percent) had ever taken formal swimming lessons, compared with 35 of the 134 controls (26 percent). This translates into an 88 percent reduction in the odds of drowning among preschoolers who had taken swimming lessons.

Children who drowned were less skilled swimmers, according the parents; for example, only 5 percent of them were able to float on their back for 10 seconds, compared with 18 percent of control children.

Brenner and her colleagues note in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that some people have voiced concerns that swimming lessons for toddlers may be ineffective and perhaps harmful, decreasing a child's natural fear of water and giving parents a false sense of confidence and complacency when their child is around water.

On the contrary, the researchers say, their study's findings provide reassurance that swimming lessons may have a protective effect.

"In combination with other prevention strategies, such as pool fencing, appropriate adult supervision and training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, swimming instruction can now be viewed as a potential component of a multifaceted approach to prevention for younger children," they conclude.

Nonetheless, parents should know that swimming skills alone cannot completely protect children from drowning and that even the most proficient swimmers can drown, Brenner's team emphasizes.

Their study also provides more evidence that swimming lessons cut the risk of drowning in older children. Among 27 children between age 5 and 19 who drowned, only 7 (27 percent) had ever taken formal swimming lessons, compared with 42 of the 79 controls (53 percent).

As with younger children, those who drowned were reported to be poorer swimmers, with 42 percent being unable to swim continuously for at least one minute compared with 16 percent of controls.

In a written commentary on the study, Dr. Frederick P. Rivara notes that drowning claims the lives of nearly 200,000 children and adolescents around the world each year.

"Formal swimming lessons offer an opportunity to make a real difference in communities around the globe to prevent the sound of happy children splashing in water from turning into the wail of an ambulance siren or the sound of a parent crying in grief," writes Rivara, of The Child Health Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.