Dr Oli: Diving and children

Q: Why is it that children can't dive below the age of eight? I suppose there has to be a cut-off at some point, but is there a good medical reason why a seven-year-old can't dive? I'm guessing it might be to do with an increased risk of DCI, but is there any actual evidence for this, or is it just scaremongering? I'm asking because my seven-year-old son has got very jealous of his nine-year-old sister doing her Bubblemaker and I'd love to put him out of his misery, but the rules say no.

A: They do say no, and for good reason. As you mention, to some extent there has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and there will always be exceptions to any rule, but there is a physical reason diving below the age of eight is not advised. Up to about this age, the areas of the lung where gas exchange takes place (the alveoli) are multiplying, and the elasticity of the lung tissue is reduced. Theoretically this puts children at higher risk of barotrauma, particularly when you take into account their emotional immaturity and consequent increased chance of panicking and ascending rapidly. The rate at which children develop varies enormously, and for this reason there are some who would not allow children to dive until twice this age.

Where is the evidence, I hear you ask? I think if any diving doctor decided to dunk kids underwater in the name of research, they'd be struck off quicker than a soggy match trying to light a stove on a weekend's camping holiday in Wales. There's no evidence I'm aware of that suggests children are more susceptible to DCI. That's not to say they aren't, just that it's unethical to do the studies you'd need to do, to find out. Most of the knowledgeable authorities agree that depths and times should be restricted to minimise the risk of bubble formation for this reason though. There's also a question about whether children are more sensitive to oxygen toxicity.

So perhaps try to distract your seven-year-old with some other activities for now - surely Pokemon Go can keep him occupied for another year? Or didgeridoo lessons perhaps? At least that would exercise his lungs.

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