Most parents recognize the need to give their children swimming lessons to keep them safe in the water. But teaching philosophies may vary from one program to the next. So how do parents choose the right swim program for their child? Check out what these experts have to say about age appropriateness, program size and instruction, submersion techniques, fear of water and more.

When should lessons start?

The earlier the better, says Rob McKay, an American Swimming Coaches Association level 4 instructor of the Lifestyle Swim School in Boca Raton, Florida. "The sooner a child gets acclimated to the water, the more comfortable he or she will be. I recommend starting classes no later than 18 months of age. Somewhere around 19 months children are more resistant to new experiences," he says.

Eric Norman, Administrator for Health and Emergency Education at the American Red Cross (ARC), agrees. "It's especially important for children whose parents have fears of the water," he says. "Even if they say they're not afraid, kids can pick up on that fear and feed off of it."

How long and how often should lessons be?

This can vary depending on the student's age, his attention span and the program. For infant/parent classes, McKay recommends one to two times a week for approximately 30 minutes. As children get older and begin learning various techniques, instruction should increase to four to five times a week for about 30 minutes each session. The longer a child goes between sessions, the more likely they are to forget what they've learned.

What is the best class size and student/teacher ratio?

This too can vary. For children, it normally ranges from six to ten students per instructor. More important than ratio, says Norman, is pool depth, age and ability of the class.

What should I look for in an instructor?

The two key qualifications an instructor must have are proper certification and good interaction skills with students. Norman believes anyone teaching swimming should be certified through a water safety instruction course, such as ones offered by the ARC. An instructor who has a good rapport with their students is equally important.

"Unless a child trusts the instructor, it's hard to make any progress," he says.

What is the right way handle fears?

The way swimming is taught is the most crucial factor, says McKay. In his over 30-year career, he has encountered a host of children and adults who were afraid of the water due to improper training. "The biggest mistake many parents and instructors make is forcing a child into the water," says McKay, who spends numerous hours each week deprogramming fears. "The key is to redirect their attention with something they will enjoy such as, activities, games or puppets."

For example, during a recent swimming class, McKay encountered a 20-month-old child who screamed every time he got near the pool. Rather than forcing him in, McKay replaced fear with fun. First, he took a basketball hoop - one used during class sessions - and set it outside of the pool so the boy could shoot baskets. Once he was distracted from his fear, the basketball net was moved closer to the pool, and eventually to the edge of the pool. After two hours, he was standing on the second step in the pool, tossing the basketball through the hoop.

What is the safest way to introduce kids to submersion?

Perhaps the most frightening aspect for those who have a fear of the water is not getting in - it's going under. Although there are many right ways to teach submersion, there is definitely one wrong way. Both Norman and McKay agree that no one should ever be forced to put their head under the water. When well-meaning parents and instructors try this approach, it results in an even greater fear of the water.

"Only when a child is happy and comfortable with his surroundings - the water, the teacher and his classmates - should he be taught to put his head under the water," says McKay.

For a child new to swimming or one who is already afraid of the water, McKay suggests easing into it. "The first few days we spend time playing and getting used to being in the water. Then we pour water down the front of their faces," he says.

This continues until the children are completely comfortable with having their faces wet, normally by the fourth or fifth session.

"Then we dip their cheeks one at a time in the water," he continues. "Finally, when the child is completely comfortable with having his face wet, we hold and dip him under the water. It's important to put the entire face under - eyes, nose and mouth - all at the same time."

What should I look for in a program?

Before enrolling in a program, stop by a session and sit in on a class. Watch how the instructor interacts with the students. Is he encouraging them without pushing too hard? Is he patient and respectful of any fears? Are they consistent? Does he use positive reinforcement? Are the students listening and attentive? Do they seem happy? Is the program geared for the skill level and age of the student?

Developmental Milestones

The very best swimming program is one that provides a stimulating learning environment, while keeping the student's age and developmental level in mind. When looking for lessons, refer to the following age-appropriate guidelines.

8 months to 4 years.

Even the youngest swimmers need to feel safe and secure in the water. That's why infants and toddlers do best when lessons are given with a parent or caregiver in the water. While you are in the water with your child, hold him securely in a positive, relaxed manner. Work on above-water skills first such as, kicking, blowing bubbles, shimmying along the gutter and getting the face wet in play. Remember, however, that this may be tiring, so stay tuned in to your child and stop when he shows the first signs of fatigue or irritation.

4 to 7 years.

Skills and water experience vary widely at this age. Students range from beginners to those swimming laps and using the four competitive strokes. McKay warns against pushing competitive strokes until the fundamentals of swimming have been established. Otherwise bad habits and poor form can result and will be harder to correct. Lessons should be kept fun, so look for a program that uses games and obstacle courses to keep the students' attention while still allowing them to practice what they've learned. Also good equipment, such as leak-proof goggles, flippers, kickboards and barbells, can be used to make learning more fun and help isolate specific strokes.

7 to 13 years.

By age 7, some children may already be involved in competitive swimming. For the many who aren't, there's still a host of water activities they can enjoy, from snorkeling and scuba diving to surfing and sailing. Regardless of their interest, learning water safety skills is always a must.

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines, the mother of three and grandmother of four.