Too Young to Swim?

My 18-month-old daughter takes swimming lessons and will not wear ear plugs. She ends up with swimmer’s ear. What can I do to prevent and treat this?

– January 16, 2003

Reviewed on 3/08/2010

"Swimmer’s ear" is an inflammation, irritation or infection of the outer ear (Otitis externa) and ear canal. Since your daughter won’t wear protective earplugs, teach her to shake her head when she gets out of the pool to expel trapped water. Or place the tip of some clean facial tissue, twisted into a point, into each ear for about 10 seconds to soak up the moisture. You can also remove water, dry out the ear and soothe the lining with ear drops made from equal parts of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Administer the drops at the end of her swimming lessons. For treatment, you’ll need an antibiotic solution for ears.

Swimming lessons are widely promoted as a means of reducing the risk of drowning, a leading cause of unintentional injury and death in young children (drowning rates are highest among toddlers between the ages of one and two). However, you may be interested to know that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend aquatic programs as a way to decrease the risk of drowning among young children. They warn that parents should not feel secure that, as a result of these lessons, their children will be safe in water or safe from drowning. It is true that one-year-old tots can learn the dog paddle and other rudimentary swimming movements, but children under the age of four don’t have the neuromuscular capability to learn real swimming skills. Furthermore, the safety training programs have not been shown to decrease the risk of drowning. In fact, the AAP’s Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness cautions that programs which emphasize making a child feel safe in water may backfire by encouraging youngsters to go into the water without supervision.

Bottom line: whenever a young child is in the water, an adult should be within arm’s reach at all times. It may be best – and safer in the long run – to postpone swimming lessons until your child is older. By then she might be more amenable to earplugs and less susceptible to swimmer’s ear.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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