Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death among children aged 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 4,000 people die by drowning each year, and young kids are especially at risk because they’re curious, fast, and attracted to water but cannot yet understand how dangerous it is.
Talk with your kids about all aspects of water safety. Nearly 70% of childhood drownings happen when kids aren’t swimming; they may wander over to a neighbor’s yard, slip through an unlocked back door during playtime, or tumble into a kiddie pool filled with rainwater. “We should teach young children that water can be dangerous, just like cars,” says Tina Dessart, who oversaw the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative, which focuses on the importance of learning to swim. “Tell them, ‘You don’t go in or near the water without a grown-up, just like you don’t cross the street without a grown-up. It is dangerous.’ You should regularly reinforce this message the way you do all other household rules.”
Insist on water watchers.
When everybody’s watching, nobody’s watching. That’s why safety organizations urge parents and caregivers to take turns being on official “water-watching duty” in group-swim situations. Don’t just give the idea lip service; you can be the one to get a rotation going. Wear a “water watcher” tag, then pass it to the next parent on duty. Keep one in your bag and pull it out when you’re meeting up with friends at the public pool or beach, even when there’s a lifeguard on duty. “Wearing it reminds me and everyone else that I’m on the job, and they shouldn’t even be talking to me,” says Haderle, who started putting on a water-watcher lanyard after a pool-party incident.
It’s also important to know what a child in distress looks like. Kids drown silently and quickly, often when they are vertical in the water with their head tipped back. Unlike what you see in movies, a child rarely splashes, flails their arms, or yells for help. Being a good water watcher is like being a good lifeguard: “You intervene when a kid may be even slightly in trouble so he doesn’t get to the point of drowning,” says Linda Quan, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Some parents avoid blue swimsuits, as the suit color can blend in with pools that are painted blue, along with the water that appears blue. Both can make locating a child in distress in the water more difficult.
Put away your phone.
Lifeguards see it all the time. “Parents and caregivers show up at the pool, tell the kids to stay in the shallow end, and then go right on their phones,” says Josh Rowland, aquatics product manager for the American Red Cross. At the very least, unwatched kids end up being babysat by lifeguards or other adults. But children can silently slip beneath the surface and drown in seconds—the time it takes to post on Instagram. Lifeguards aren’t babysitters.
You don’t need to leave your phone at home. You should keep it fully charged and within reach so you can call for help in case of an emergency. However, silence it and stow it in your bag. Then, encourage your friends to do the same. And if you absolutely, positively must send an urgent email or make a call, find a responsible adult to stand in while you step away.
Consider swim lessons to be a health-care priority.
Even if you don’t live near water, your child will end up near it at some point, whether on vacation or at someone else’s home. Taking swim lessons cannot “drown-proof” anyone, but according to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), swimming lessons may benefit children between the ages of 1 and 4. “The right time to start depends on an individual child’s emotional and physical readiness,” says Ben Hoffman, M.D., chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, the group that authored the statement.
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If you’re unsure what that means for your kid, ask their pediatrician for guidance. Then, when it’s time, get lessons on the calendar. “The goal with very young children is to make them comfortable in the water so that when they are developmentally ready, they can learn and use skills that could be lifesaving,” says Stephen Langendorfer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of kinesiology at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and who sits on the scientific advisory council for the American Red Cross.
Be smart about pool services.
When opening a pool for the season, hire a professional to check the pool’s safety systems. Here are some of the basics:
- Make sure the pool’s safety cover is working properly.
- The pump, filter, and other electrical components should operate correctly. Any wiring needs to be complete, covered, and without gaps in any insulation.
- Check that fencing is solid, with self-closing and self-latching gates.
- Look for and repair loose screws or rough edges that could catch bathing suits or hair and trap swimmers.
- In larger pools and spas, check for displaced or absent drain covers. If you come across any pool or spa with an exposed drain hole at the bottom, alert the owner and keep everyone out of the water.
Have your emergency plan in place.
IF THERE’S A NEAR-DROWNING INCIDENT AT YOUR POOL, CALL 9-1-1 FIRST!
Knowing even basic CPR and acting immediately—instead of waiting for emergency responders—can make the difference between life and death in drowning cases or anytime a person’s heart stops. Round up a group of parents and sign up for CPR classes together, or order a CPR party kit to learn these skills at home.
Buy an all-weather sign with CPR instructions to hang on the inside of your pool gate, and be sure to print your home’s address on it in permanent marker in case anyone needs to call an ambulance. Even if a child doesn’t need CPR after being submerged, having water in their lungs can still lead to serious trouble. After a rescue, parents should watch for coughing, lethargy, and rapid breathing. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask your child’s doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911.
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Think beyond the in-ground pool.
A child can drown in less than 2 inches of water. Even the smallest wading pool requires constant supervision and should be drained and placed well out of reach when it’s not being used. As tempting as those large, inflatable pools look in the store, they often hold hundreds of gallons of water that can’t easily be drained. They have become a particular threat: A study published in Pediatrics found large, inflatable pools are responsible for 11 percent of pool drownings among children under 5. If you have one, surround it with a fence, cover it when not used, and remove the steps or ladder once swim time is over.
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Never rely on water wings, floaties, inner tubes, or noodles. These are pool toys. If someone needs added support in the pool, use only flotation devices labeled Coast Guard-approved.
Get serious about fences.
While a four-sided fence that separates a pool from the house and backyard may not seem “pretty,” the aesthetics of drowning are far uglier. Levi Hughes died at home with three-sided fencing, which may have protected neighboring kids from entering the pool area but still allowed a child to slip out a back door and into the water. “I have to live the rest of my life with the guilt that I could have prevented him from dying,” says Nicole Hughes. “But this isn’t about our regret and heartache. Drowning doesn’t happen to the parents; it happens to the child. Levi will never trick-or-treat again and will never turn four years old.”
Install a fence at least 4 feet high around all four sides of the pool. The fence should not have openings or protrusions that a young child could use to get over, under, or through. Make sure that the gate leading to your pool is self-closing and self-latching and that it opens out. Latches should be above a child’s reach, and the space between the bottom of the fence and the ground should be less than 4 inches. Never prop open a gate to the pool area.
Build layers of protection.
After swim time, collect and stow all toys and floats, which can be tempting to curious kids. You should install and maintain a pump to prevent potentially deadly puddling on your pool cover, and keep a lifesaving ring, floats, and a shepherd’s crook reaching pole in the same spot at all times.
“Kids are fast, curious, and mobile,” says Dr. Hoffman. In-ground pool alarms, motorized pool safety covers, dead-bolt locks on back doors, four-sided pool fences, and Coast Guard–approved flotation devices are all good and vital options that can stand between your family and devastating tragedy. “You should be able to hear a buzzing noise every time the door or gate opens,” says Tom Krzmarzick, M.D., medical director of the Regional Pediatric Trauma and Emergency Center at Dayton’s Children’s Medical Center. It’s safest to invest in a sonar device that sets off an alarm when something enters the water; if that isn’t practical, get a floating alarm that goes off if the water is disturbed.
Don’t leave toys in the pool area or use chemical dispensers that look like toys.
Your child might run after a ball, for example, and trip. “I remember a 2-year-old who rode his tricycle into the pool area and fell off into the water,” says Rohit Shenoi, M.D., an emergency-room physician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
Teach your kids and all caregivers these pool rules:
- Do not run around the pool.
- No pushing or dunking in the pool.
- Never dive from the side of the pool or a diving board unless a pool is at least 9 feet deep. If the depth isn’t posted, don’t dive!
- Get out of the pool immediately in bad weather, especially if there’s lightning.
- Do not let kids use mermaid tails or fins in the pool. They can make it hard to swim and lead to drowning.
- Floaties do not prevent drowning. Kids who wear them still need the same supervision as those without them.
Set a good example of how to enjoy a pool safely. Follow all safety rules, and don’t use alcohol or drugs while in or around a pool.