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Water Safety for Children

Mom swimming with infant

Water play is a big part of summer fun. Creating safe environments for children around water is the first step to making sunny-day family memories that will last a lifetime.

Water Safety for Children Under 4

My daughter, then 6, my son (3), and my daughter’s best buddy, Helena, were at the pool one sunny June afternoon. I told Ben to sit close to me while I finished putting sunblock on the girls. I swear—I swear—he was right there. Every few minutes, I would look up to check on him. As I rubbed sunblock along Helena’s arm, she pointed and said, “What’s wrong with Ben?” I turned and saw my son floating underwater in the pool. Even though it’s years later now, I still feel that raw panic in my throat. I jumped in, pulled him out and—fortunately—he was okay.

It turns out we were really lucky that day. Drowning is the single leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4 and kills almost 1,000 children per year. When Ben fell into the pool, it was completely silent. I heard nothing. Despite looking up every few minutes to check on him, I was still distracted. I expected too much of a toddler to “wait three minutes for Mommy.” And I’ll be forever grateful to a kindergartner who thought to speak up. Drowning can happen in any family. As scary as it is to imagine, we need to talk about drowning so we can keep our little ones safe.

Fact: Most drownings in kids 4 and under happen in home swimming pools. Researchers looked at child drowning deaths and found that nearly 70% of the children were not expected to be at the pool, yet they were found in the water. And 46% of the children were last seen in the house! We know toddlers have ninja escape skills—they want what they want when they want it and they can turn doorknobs.

Parent Tips:

  • When children are expected to be in and around water, close, attentive supervision is most effective at preventing drowning.
  • When children are NOT expected to be in or around water, 4-sided fencing is the most effective strategy to prevent drowning.
  • Child-proof doors to the home so that determined little hands can’t open them.
  • If a child can’t be found, check pools and hot tubs first.
  • Install a permanent, (minimum) 4 foot-high, 4-sided fence that completely surrounds the pool and isolates it from the house. The fence should:
    • Be climb-proof with no footholds
    • Have vertical slats with no more than 4-inch gaps (so toddlers
      can’t scoot through)
    • Have a latch at least 54 inches off the ground
    • Have a self-closing, self-latching gate
    • Be locked when the pool is not in use. Be sure to put pool toys away so there’s no temptation in view.

Fact: 27% of drownings among children age 4 and under took place at the home of a friend, relative, or neighbor. Okay, so your house is safe and child-proofed, but you just got invited to your neighbor’s house—and they have no pool fence.

Parent Tips:

  • Close, within-your-sight supervision of children at all times is the key. (And nobody’s going to judge you for a sorry-can’t-make-it RSVP because—let’s face it—constant surveillance makes for a stressful party.)
  • Put your child in a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when around water, pools, or hot tubs.

Fact: Drowning is silent. Children can drown within seconds, with barely a splash.

Parent Tips:

  • Assign an adult to be Water Watcher. It’s like the designated driver of the pool party. The Water Watcher’s job is to watch all children swimming or playing in or NEAR water―such as on a backyard swing set―even if they know how to swim. This person should:
    • not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol
    • put down his or her cell phone
    • avoid other activities
    • supervise, even if there are lifeguards
    • switch off with another adult for breaks
  • Turn up the volume. Swimming pool alarms can detect waves on the water’s surface and attract attention when someone has fallen into the pool.

Fact: Children can drown in as little as 2 inches of water.

Parent Tips:

  • Empty water from buckets and other containers immediately after use.
  • Use toilet locks to prevent the drowning of toddlers. Do not leave young children alone in the bathroom.
  • Never leave young children unsupervised in the bathtub.
  • Avoid using infant seats in the bathtub due to a tip-over risk.

Fact: Research has found that swim lessons benefit children starting around age 1 and may lower drowning rates. But remember—even the best swim lessons can’t “drown-proof” a child.

Parent Tips:

  • Look for swim programs that teach children how to get out if they end up in the water unexpectedly. Talk with your child’s health care provider about whether she is ready for swim lessons.
  • When infants or toddlers are in or around the water, an adult with swimming skills should supervise and always stay within an arm’s length, providing constant “touch supervision.”
  • Don’t assign older children to supervise younger children near bathtubs, pools, spas, or other open water.

Check out more tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics on keeping your child safe around water.

Water play is a big part of summer fun. Creating safe environments for children around water is the first step to making sunny-day family memories that will last a lifetime.

Sarah A. Denny, MD, FAAP
Lead Author, Prevention of Drowning Policy Statement
Executive Committee for the Council on Injury, Violence
and Poison Prevention
American Academy of Pediatrics

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