EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - The best hope to prevent toddlers from drowning might be the toddlers themselves.

That's the idea behind a program aimed at teaching swimming skills to the youngest of children.

"They maybe can't crawl or walk or talk, but if they can manipulate their legs, they can stay afloat," said Barbara Gorman, an instructor demonstrating the technique Tuesday at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center's Life Center.

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The method, developed by Harvey Barnett, a behavioral psychologist and drowning prevention specialist based in Florida, teaches the children how to flip over if they are face down in the water and remain floating while they catch their breath or call for help.

Barnett said he developed the program after becoming alarmed by the number of children drowning. Of the 3,582 people that drown every year in the United States, about one in four are 14 years old and younger.

Near-drowning accidents are another major problem for children, causing permanent injury and developmental disorders in some cases. Barnett said that New Jersey spends about $46.3 million annually treating injuries sustained in near-drowning accidents.

Beginning next month, the swimming classes will be taught this summer at the Life Center.

Children between 1 and 6 years old learn to swim toward a safe location. Since they are still top-heavy, this usually means their heads are submerged. When they need air or a moment to rest, or they can't see a safe point, they learn to float on their backs and call for help.

For infants, communication is more challenging, but through a series of touch commands, an infant can learn to keep afloat with his or her head facing up while not expelling too much air.

"The lesson is all through sensory motor learning, the same way a baby learns anything else," Gorman said.

On Tuesday, Gorman demonstrated the techniques, using three children, ranging in age from 7 months old to her own 2-year-old son, Mac.

At first, the young children's faces were submerged in water. After a few seconds - and a few kicks of their little legs - they flipped over like a buoy, kept their faces up and called for help.

Barnett stressed the need to teach these survival skills to all young children who might be around water, no matter how safe their parents feel they are.

Barnett said that keeping a watchful eye or having fences around a pool aren't enough to prevent toddlers from drowning.

According to a study released in 2004, 88 percent of children who drowned were under some form of supervision at the time. And when children were able to get into a fenced pool, they did so by going through faulty gates or gates that had simply been left open.

"The fences don't fail," Barnett said. "The gates fail."

In addition to proper swimming techniques, Barnett advocates well-constructed permanent fences with alarm systems and working locks, as well as a segmented supervision technique, in which adults take turns having the sole task of watching an infant or toddler in the water for a short period.

Sharon McDermott, of Mays Landing, watched the demonstrations at the pool Tuesday. She wants to sign up her 3-year-old grandson, Trent, for the summer classes.

"He loves the water, he really takes to our pool," McDermott said. "But he doesn't like his head underwater."

E-mail Ben Leach:

Learning to swim

The Infant Swimming Resource Program begins at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Life Center in Egg Harbor Township on Monday, July 20.

For more information or to

register for classes

call 888-569-1000 or visit the

Web site:

For more information on Barnett's swimming techniques, see

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