A new study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has found that when kids between 1 and 4 take formal swimming lessons, their risk of drowning decreases significantly. The key word here is "formal"; showing your tot how to paddle around won't protect him. (And, lessons or no, you still need to be vigilant about water safety.) Here's what to look for when sizing up a swim program for a child under 5, says Connie Harvey, health and safety expert for the American Red Cross:
An instructor who's certified by a national swim program, such as the American Red Cross's or the YMCA's.
A positive attitude toward parents. Most classes for kids 3 and under are parent-child programs; parents should be able to watch those for older kids.
An ideal teacher-to-child ratio. In a parent-child class, one instructor per ten parent-kid pairs; in a class for kids 4 and over, no more than six per teacher.
An emphasis on water safety skills. These include how to climb out of the pool, how to roll from front to back, and how to wait for a cue from an adult before jumping in.
Limited use of "floaties." They're okay for a game or drill, but if kids are wearing them for the entire class, look for another program.