Special report: Diving into controversial infant survival swimming lessons

(Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Summer is here, which means plenty of time spent outdoors and around water. Whether you think about it or not, that water can be a death trap.

According to Drowning Prevention Foundation, a child can drown in less than one minute and in as little as one inch of water.

Drowning is the leading cause of injury death for young children. In fact, three children die every day from drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One local family almost became a statistic this summer.

Two-year-old Micah Penley is an active little boy.

"That thing will probably drive for NASCAR one day," said Micah's mother, Tiffany Penley.

Two months ago, in a split second, his parents saw his future floating away with his lifeless body.

"He walked off for just a minute and fell in the swimming pool and he drown. He wasn't breathing and there was no pulse by the time I got there," said Micah's father, Jeremiah Penley.

Jeremiah and Tiffany were outside doing yard work at Tiffany's parents home getting ready for Micah's birthday party. All four adults thought the other person was watching Micah, but he had walked off and fell in the pool.

"He was definitely blue and cold and bloated. You could feel the water inside him, he just felt really gushy," Tiffany recalled. "It was like he was a frog, a dead frog."

Jeremiah was able to perform CPR and save his son's life, but many children don't make it.

According to the CDC,  drowning kills more children 1 to 4 years old than anything else except birth defects.

Here in Alabama the state says every summer six to 18 1- to 4-year-olds die from drowning.

"It's so important to teach them how to swim, I mean just if anything how to float," advises Tiffany.

Ten-month-old Caroline can't even walk yet, but if she ever falls into a body of water she can save herself after taking infant swimming lessons.

"She has learned to flip on to her back and float until someone could get to her safely," said Caroline's mother, Ashley Petrunic.

Caroline's swimming instructor, Jeffrey Nichols, says "they learn as soon as they hit the water they roll over to find the air."

Nichols is a certified infant aquatics instructor. He says children are able to learn how to float through applied behavioral analysis. For four to six weeks, four days a week, 10 minutes a day, children as young as 6-months-old repeatedly go through the steps, starting with learning how to seal passage ways from water.

"They're closing their mouth, they're rolling over, they're flipping. They are doing all these things and when they fall in and they hit that water, they know exactly what to do," Nichols said. "It's the same process as a child learning how to crawl. It's the same process as a child learns how to roll over. It's the same process as a child learns how to walk- repetition, repetition, repetition."

The CDC says research shows taking part in formal swimming lessons reduces the risk of drowning.

However, these infant survival swimming lessons are controversial with some believing babies are too young to take part in them.

State leaders, though, stand behind children swimming instruction, even infant lessons.

"It's always good to make our children as self-sufficient as possible. So yes, we as the Alabama Department of Public Health would highly recommend that adults do make sure that even very young children are safe around the water. So any instructions, any preparation we can do is certainly laudable," said Dr. Jim McVay, director of health promotion & chronic disease with ADPH.

The process does seem frightening for some as instructors must let go of the children with their heads left in the water.

For Nichols and parents whose children are going through the training, that fear is quickly replaced with reassurance knowing their children can save themselves.

"It was really important for us to make sure he was safe," said Becca Bowers, whose son, Roman, is taking lessons from Nichols. "It can just happen so quickly."

The Penleys know that. It didn't take Micah very long to slip in. They're now teaching him how to swim and sharing their story to hopefully teach others a valuable lesson.

"If he would have hit that water and known just to get to his back and breathe or float that would have never have happened," Tiffany said.

Children who go through the lessons also learn to cry out and get attention so someone can come get them out of the water. Again, it's not swimming lessons but rather learning to float.

Experts also say every parent should know CPR. Micah's parents say that is the reason he is here today.

Experts advise if you do have a pool you should install four-sided fencing that completely separates the pool area from the house and yard and also consider additional barriers such as automatic door locks and alarms. Officials want to remind you even with lessons it does not replace supervision.

To find infant swimming instructors near you visit: infantaquatics.com and www.infantswim.com.

More information about drowning and drowning prevention is available on the CDC website.

Copyright 2016 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.