The water safety tips parents need to know this summer
Experts talk swim lessons, drowning risks and puddle jumpers.
I’ll never forget the look on my 4-month-old daughter’s face when we first waded into the water at Goldfish Swim School. Her eyes widened with wonder as we lightly splashed during the welcome song with six other babies and their parents. I rested her tiny head on my shoulder while she floated on her back, looking up at the foam mirror the instructor gave me.
It took a few weeks for her to get used to having water on her face, holding onto the side of the pool ledge and traveling forward in the water while I kicked her legs and made gentle pulling motions with her arms. Four months later, we watch the babies in the class before ours and she waves her arms and makes happy squeals when she knows we’re heading into the water for her swim class.
As a Florida native and resident with a pool in the backyard, my husband and I planned all along to enroll our daughter in lessons as soon as possible. We know the statistics: Nearly 900 children and teens die from unintentional drowning every year, and drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 years old.
With beach, lake and pool season quickly approaching, a refresher on water safety should be in the cards for everyone.
Swimming lessons are drowning prevention for all ages
It surprised me when my baby daughter started to kick in the water on her own during just her second swimming lesson. Swimming seems instinctual, but 17% of Americans — about 1 in 5 — don’t know how to swim.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swimming lessons for kids as young as age 1,” says Dr. Michael Hamilton, a pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii. “An early and supervised introduction to the water is a good thing. [These lessons] offer the opportunity to teach even the youngest child basic skills, enough to self-rescue and get to the edge, or have enough time and air to yell for help.”
Once babies can sit up and have good head and neck control, they can start learning survival swim basics, says Christi Brown, executive director of The Judah Brown Project, a water safety advocacy organization she started after the death of her son, Judah. “Babies around 6 or 7 months old can learn to float on their backs if they were ever to fall into the water alone. We believe they should get these skills before they learn to crawl. If they can crawl, they can drown.”
Brown stresses that “water acclimation” lessons are not as effective as “survival swim” classes for learning skills to keep kids safe. She says, “Survival swim schools will teach their youngest students to be able to roll onto their back and float, and will teach children older than 1 year old to do a swim-float-swim sequence, find an exit and get out of the pool. They will learn these skills within six weeks of starting lessons.” The Judah Brown Project offers a resource page for parents to find a survival swim class near where they live, and also offers scholarships for swim lessons.
Gina Jacobs Thomas, who owns two Goldfish Swim School franchises in Central Florida, says the school’s approach focuses on babies’ gross motor skills, including kicking the legs and pulling the arms. “When most people fall into a body of water, there’s a feeling of shock and then your nervous system can take over, putting you into trouble,” she says. “Even at 6 months old, we’re working on both getting them used to the sensation of being in water as well as grip strength to grab the wall, fundamental swimming and gliding skills, and floating on the surface of the water.”
No longer a baby? No worries, says Thomas. “Learning to swim is important at any age,” she says. “It’s never too late to learn.” Many YMCAs and community pools offer lessons for adults and seniors, too.
It’s not just the pool that poses a drowning risk
According to Hamilton says, a child's risk of drowning in a particular body of water largely "depends on age."
"For infants, most drownings occur in the bathtub," he explains. "For children 1 to 4 years old, the home swimming pool is the most common location. For children ages 5 to 14, about 30% of drowning happens in swimming pools and 40% in natural bodies of water.”
Adults are also at risk. “Many parents have lost their lives trying to save their kids in the water,” says Brown in response to the case of Naya Rivera, the Glee TV star who died while swimming with her son off the side of her rented pontoon boat in 2020. “We think we can help our kids because we are bigger than them and we can swim. But the reality is that a person who is drowning is going to cling to and pull on anyone or anything they can get to. It’s instinctual.”
Open water, like a lake or the ocean, is different than pools in this case because it’s not a controlled environment. “There are lots of factors with open water that make swimming much more difficult, let alone trying to save someone,” says Brown. Lifeguards at the beach carry long floatation devices to keep distance between themselves and the drowning person to avoid being pulled down and drowning as well. “You may be able to get the person to safety but then be unable to get yourself to safety after expending all your energy fighting to save that person,” Brown says. “We suggest everyone wear life jackets when in open water, kids and parents alike. Just doing this could mean the difference between life and death for you both.”
Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are essential around lakes and at the beach or on the ocean, but shouldn’t be used in the pool. That includes “puddle jumpers," which, Brown says, "give parents and children a false sense of security and safety. Letting children bob around in the water unassisted communicates to the child that swimming is easy and independent and that parents are not needed.”
Brown says that her organization believes these devices are one of the reasons why children go back into the water alone. “They haven’t developed a respect for the water. They’re impulsive and don’t understand that they aren’t able to swim without the flotation device.” Brown also warns parents against letting their guard down when using PFDs or puddle jumpers. “When swim time is over, parents remove the device and continue with the day’s activities,” she says. “This is when overconfident children find their way back to the pool. Most children drown when it is not swim time.” She says parents often think they’re doing the right thing by purchasing and using these devices. “There’s no data to support that using these devices help children learn to swim, and the U.S. Coast Guard only evaluates these devices for use on a boat.”
Another piece of swim gear worth reconsidering? A blue swimsuit. Some swim instructors have spoken out online about why blue swimwear tends to visually blend with the water, making it harder to spot a swimmer.
Noting that babies and young children can drown in water just two inches deep — which means that bathtubs, birdbaths, buckets and toilets all pose a drowning risk — the website for Seattle Children's Hospital advises parents to never leave a child unattended near water, only use bath seats with close adult supervision, store empty buckets when not in use, avoid having a garden pond or put a fence around it and empty kiddie pools when they’re not in use.
"Make sure you know where your potential hazards are and be proactive about them," says Thomas. "Empty water toys, lock toilets with child safety locks and never leave a bathroom unattended while children are bathing.”
Constant, vigilant supervision is key
Hamilton says the most important thing children should learn about swimming is that it is only safe with an adult present. “Drowning is often silent with very little splashing,” he says. “It can occur very quickly with less than a minute to react, and is still possible even when children know how to swim.”
That’s why water safety advocates, including Thomas and Brown, stress the importance of a “water watcher” or “water guardian” who is watching activity in the water every single second there are people in the pool. “These people should be free from distraction," says Thomas. "They don’t have a cell phone. They’re not reading a book. They’re not engaging in conversation. We have lanyards that we provide for families to have a ‘water watcher’ so that everyone has a visual reminder not to distract that person even for a second.” Thomas recommends rotating that person out every 15 minutes.
It’s also essential to have someone in the water at arm's length at all times when there are younger children or inexperienced swimmers in the water. “It only takes a few seconds for a little head to dip below the surface of the water," notes Hamilton. "Beginning swimmers need ‘touch supervision,’ which means a parent or another adult is within arm’s length of the child.”
Not even a fence, pool covers and alarms on doors and windows are a substitute for a watchful eye, he adds.
CPR-trained bystanders save lives
If the last time you learned CPR was in your infant care classes before giving birth — or if you never learned in the first place — it’s time for a refresher before swim season. “It’s one of those things you hope you never have to do,” says Thomas. “But it’s so helpful to have that skill if and when you need it.”
Hamilton agrees that CPR is an excellent idea for any parent or adult who plans to be around young children and a pool or open water. Brown adds that the key for CPR with drowning victims is that you must give rescue breaths. Chest compressions are not enough. “They need air put into their lungs to get oxygen to the brain,” she says.
Brown recommends taking a CPR refresher course each year — the Red Cross offers them for $37 both online and in person — and downloading the RescueMe CPR app (available on the App Store and Google Play Store), which walks the user through the process and calls 911 for them. She also recommends the CPR Wrap, a paper template placed on the body of the person requiring CPR with printed instructions and easy-to-follow diagrams on how to give CPR properly.
Christi Brown encourages parents to think of layers of drowning prevention like Swiss cheese. “Each layer has holes where it can fail," she says. "But if you stack the layers on top of one another, each layer will begin to fill the holes of the layers before it, to give your kids the best chance of being safer around the water. We need all of the layers, not just one, to truly keep our kids safer around the water.”
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