Sink or Swim?

Of the estimated 500 people who drown in Canada each year, 6 percent are infants or toddlers, according to the Canadian Red Cross. In nearly half of the infant and toddler drownings, the victims were alone. Is it possible for babies to learn how to save themselves from drowning?

Sink or Swim?When Calgary mom of two Holly Murray viewed the now-viral video of an 11-month-old boy falling into a pool and then saving himself by rolling over and floating on his back, she desperately wanted to sign her two sons up for the program responsible for teaching the child that skill.

But when Murray discovered that no one in Canada was teaching the program, called Infant Swimming Resource (ISR), she travelled to the U.S. and became a certified instructor instead. She has now taught close to 150 children. While she agrees the only way to keep kids safe is to watch them constantly, she says; “I’m a mom; I know [kids] can get away from you.”

What is ISR?

Using a sensory motor technique developed by Dr. Harvey Barnett of Winter Park, Fla., children under six learn to either swim to safety, or if under the age of one, to roll over and maintain a back float position, unassisted, and rest and breathe until help arrives. Over a course of four to six weeks, children are given one-on-one 10-minute lessons, five days a week. At the end of the course, students learn to perform self-rescue skills fully clothed, shoes and all. Since ISR’s inception in 1966, more than 200,000 children have gone through the program.

Is it Traumatic?

One of Murray’s first participants was Dayna Purdy from Calgary, whose daughter Addyson started lessons at eight months old. “It wasn’t going to be an excuse not to watch our daughter, but to buy us that split second in case the worst ever happened,” she explains. Purdy admits it was difficult to watch her daughter, who cried through the course, learn the skill through repetition. However, Purdy was amazed to see her daughter learn to right herself from being face-first in the water to floating on her back. “I was close to tears a few times because I couldn’t believe she was doing it.”

Before each session, parents are also required to show the instructor daily logs on their child’s sleep, urination, bowel and dietary habits so that they know whether the child is ready for the lesson.

Supervision is Still the Best Safety Precaution

Despite the program’s success, including 789 documented cases of children using the skills to rescue themselves in a drowning situation, experts urge caution. The Lifesaving Society of Canada, a non-profit organization that provides lifesaving training, says parents should not feel their child is safe from drowning even after participating in an infant program. In a position statement, the Canadian Paediatric Society also asserts such programs should not be promoted as an effective drowning prevention strategy.

“There is no evidence that swimming lessons prevent drowning or near-drowning in this age group [under four years old]. Although it may be possible to teach young infants basic motor skills for water, infants cannot be expected to learn the elements of water safety or to react appropriately in emergencies.”

“Some adults forget that supervising means staying within reach,” says Safe Kids Canada project leader Denyse Boxell. Though half of all drownings take place in pools, Boxell says babies can drown in anything over an inch of water, including garden ponds and bathtubs. Dr. Barnett agrees that water safety measures should be mandatory, but that his program acts as an extra layer of protection.

He points to a 2009 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that found participation in swimming lessons was associated with an 88 percent reduction in the risk of drowning for children aged one to four.

“I don’t look at it as a sense of security,” Purdy says. “It’s more like preparing your family to get out of the house in case of a fire. I believe in the program 100 percent, but it’s not for everyone; it’s a personal choice.

Laura Pellerine is a Calgary-based writer and editor who never wants to get out of the pool — even when she’s wrinkled like a prune.

24 responses to “Sink or Swim?”

  1. Rachel says:

    Where is this available?

  2. Jaime Sawdon says:

    I live in edmonton alberta i hav 4 kids ages 8,5,3,and 17 months all who hav mever really been swimming will this program ever be in alberta canada amd what does it cost

  3. Melissa says:

    I just saw the video on facebook and would LOVE to know if this program is available in the Ottawa/Kingston area in Ontario.

  4. Thanks very much for all your comments! For more information on ISR in Canada, you can email Holly Murray at Hope that helps! ~Alicia

  5. Angela says:

    Is this available anywhere in Vancouver BC area?

  6. Kira Griffis says:

    the only place in canada it is currently available is in Calgary :(

  7. Eliza says:

    Is there anything never london ontario that is close to the same program that anyone could suggest?

  8. Eliza says:

    is there anything near london ontario that is close to the same program?

  9. bails says:

    This should be a mandatory program available in any community center with a pool!
    All across Canada.

  10. Jes says:

    This email keeps bouncing back

  11. For more information on ISR, you can try

  12. Michelle says:

    Really wish this was available in Ontario!

  13. Jean says:

    This is an excellent / informative article. My daughter & husband have been
    attending in Kelowna, BC an infant swimming course, and doing a repeat course. After reading this article, I am very grateful they are, & thankful to the organization offering this valuable program in Kelowna.
    It is very true, in the opening paragraph, written by mom (Holly Murray)
    “While she agrees……..she says: “I’m a mom” ” I know [kids] can get away
    from you.” I am a firm believer that Education & Knowledge is essential during
    our entire life. Mom & Grandmom (Jeannie) Cornwall, On

  14. caira says:

    I want to get my children into this program! But there is not one available in Lethbridge :(

  15. kirsten says:

    Jean, where in Kelowna did they take the IRS course?

  16. Natasha Romm says:

    This should be mandatory for all provinces. Does anyone know if it is available in Ontario? Kitchener-Waterloo area?

  17. Nyllia says:

    Is there anyone in Edmonton who teaches lessons like these for toddlers and young children?

  18. Stephanie Couch says:

    Does anyone know how to find links to the area you are living in? I’m in Ontario and would like to find a place to take my son.

  19. Ari Zadegan says:

    Did you find a place, Stephanie in Ontario? I am looking too.


  20. Sherry Legge says:

    There is an ISR instructor in Ottawa, Ontario. She is the only other certified person in Canada.

  21. CairasMom says:

    I live in Hamilton Ontario I would really like to sign up my baby for these classes

  22. sveanne says:

    How about in Vancouver BC? is there a ISR instructor who can train my baby? I’m very desperate for this!!!

  23. jen says:

    I am also looking for someone in Hamilton. did you end up finding someone?

  24. Twyla Marie Mazur says:

    Ottawa there is