How young is too young to dive?
December 15, 2019
By Scuba Bill
I'm often asked, how old do I have to be to start diving? As a PADI Dive Master, the shortest and simplest way to answer this is to just point to the PADI standard (8 years-old for the bubble maker program, 10 in most areas to begin open water training and 15 to earn the full "Open Water" diver certification).
However, after working with various age groups there is more to think about (IMHO) than just a child's age.
"Fitness to dive" has several dimensions, which overlap and influence each other, including: (1) medical fitness - is the child medically & physically able to dive?, (2) psychological fitness - does the child have the emotional maturity to deal with the stresses of diving including dealing with emergencies? (3) Cognitive fitness - is the child able to learn and apply the various skills and knowledge to the open water environment? This, by the way, includes such things as being able to concentrate, evaluate various risks and adequately react to them. And lastly, what I call (4) Motivational fitness - why does the parent and the child want to dive.
Let's assume that after carefully evaluating your child and discussing with appropriate medical professionals you make the decision to introduce your child to the awe-inspiring world of diving. A few (by no means exhaustive) list of things to keep in mind:
- Children will become colder faster than adults. According to some studies I've seen, this can easily be 1.5x faster. So, keep thermal protection in mind. And, when your child says, "I'm cold" realize they probably are ... or ... they've decided they want to take a break - either way, please listen to them and take action;
- Gear must fit - if the regulator, or fins, or mask and all the rest aren't comfortable and sized appropriately, you are putting your child at increased risk;
- I haven't found any studies that adequately address the potential impact of nitrogen bubbles on growth plates. Although all activities have some risk, you should keep in mind that diving will mean bubble formation, and bubbles may impact the growth plates. So, you will want to make sure that dives are shallow and short to help reduce (but will not eliminate) this potential risk;
- Equalization - this is an issue for adults but is often more problematic for children. Eustachian tube development may not be complete, ear infections are more common, and the adenoids may cause additional challenges
Some other things to think about (again, not an exhaustive list and I am just another dive, not a medical professional, so please seek appropriate and specific advice):
(1) Depending upon which study you read, the incidence of DCI is perhaps 10x greater in children than adults. Careful dive planning and careful evaluation of your child's ability to follow instructions and how they will react (which of course is somewhat unpredictable) to a perceived or actual underwater issue is critical.
(2) I could not find any stats on children & AGE.
(3) When discussing diving with your child's pediatrician, I would strongly recommend an evaluation for patent foramen ovale - this is where the hole in the heart didn't fully close after birth. If present, this will likely increase the risk and severity of DCI (in my non-medical view).
(4) It did appear from the literature that I read, that children with ADHD had a higher incidence of DCI and ENT events. Refraining from speculating if the underlying cause is the mental capabilities, the drugs these children may be taking, or something else, I would suggest that if your child has ADHD or any of its related conditions, you should carefully discuss this ( as well as all issues) with appropriate pediatric medical experts. I have had good experiences with children with ADHD in a confined (e.g. pool) environment, but I'd be hesitant to take those children into the open water since that child is going to be at likely higher risk than the non-ADHD child diver.
(5) If you've read some of my other posts, you know that from time to time we've discussed the diabetic diver. I could not find any literature on pediatric diabetes and diving. And so, my general recommendation would be, like any medical condition, discuss with your child's physician, but realize that you may be placing your child at higher risk than a non-diabetic diver.
(6) Treatment for DCI - I could not find any studies that focused on pediatric treatment for "getting bent". What it did appear, is that children followed the same protocol as adults. Again, recognize that you are putting your child at potentially higher risk since we don't know the longer term consequences of either a DCI incident nor the impact / efficacy that the treatment protocols may have.
(7) and lastly ... I love the underwater world, I love introducing new divers to this world, I have had special satisfaction when working with children and young adults. If you and your child proceed down this road, please find a dive professional, a dive shop and a dive program, that keeps themselves educated and has a focus on this population.
12/2021 - DAN published an article exactly on point: https://www.qgdigitalpublishing.com/publication/?m=58549&i=727049&p=30&ver=html5 (enjoy!)
2/23/2020 update - read this very good blog on the same topic published in May of 2019. Here is a link to it: https://www.liveabout.com/is-scuba-diving-safe-for-kids-2963213