School’s out for summer. Which means days at the pool with your kids, or maybe a beach vacay (or two). But before you pack your beach bag, make sure your kids can handle the water.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that 73% of fatal child drownings that happened in a pool or spa were children under the age of 5. And non-fatal drownings in a pool or spa increased by 17% in 2021 for kids under 15.
Are child drownings common?
Drowning continues to be the leading cause of death for kids under the age of 4. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with community pools closed down, a lot of kids never learned how to swim. And on top of all that, we’re in a lifeguard shortage. And it’s impacting about a third of pools across the country.
We spoke to Dr. Sarah Denny, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She wrote the AAP’s Prevention of Drowning policy statement. We spoke to her about this persisting problem and how you can keep your kids safe in the water this summer.
So how can I keep my child safe in the water?
There isn’t one way to keep your child safe, instead there are multiple layers of protection when it comes to water safety:
Get your child swimming lessons
Learning how to swim is a vital survival skill. And if you think your child is too young to learn, think again.
Denny said that kids older than one can benefit from swimming lessons — not just once but regularly — because some swimming lessons are taught by age group. And as your child matures, their swimming skills should mature, too.
“It's not kind of a one and done thing. It should be a continuous journey. And I always tell my patients and their families, swimming is a life skill. It's as important as learning how to tie your shoes. You don't have to be an amazing swimmer. You don't have to be on the swim team. But you have to know enough basic water safety and skills so that if you were to fall into water that's over your head, you could get yourself back up to the surface and over to safety,” she said.
And when it comes to actually finding swim lessons, Denny suggested organized ones instead of teaching your child yourself “because they do have a good understanding of the developmental, physical, and mental capabilities of the children and know how to interweave the swim skills as well as the safety skills.”
She added it’s important to look for classes that will give you and your kids feedback. Just because you got your child swim lessons, doesn’t mean they’re a sufficient swimmer. Denny said it’s important to be realistic about your child’s swimming abilities. And even if they were a great swimmer before the pandemic, she said that may not be the case anymore.
You can find swimming classes near you through the American Red Cross and you can download its free Swim app -- which features videos and activities for kids to learn water safety. But according to a YMCA survey, three in 10 US parents said that water safety isn’t a priority because of affordability. So if you’re worried about the cost of classes, look to your local YMCA, which offers scholarships for free or low-cost swim lessons. Or you can apply for financial assistance for classes through the Hope Floats Foundation.
But even with swim lessons, Denny said to keep in mind that “swimming lessons don't drown proof your child. Just because your child's attended swimming lessons doesn't mean they don't need those other layers of protection.”
Get yourself adult swimming lessons
The American Red Cross found in 2014 that 54% of all Americans either didn’t know how to swim, or didn’t have all of the basic swimming skills.
“Some families, no one knows how to swim. And so this could be the summer that as a family they decide, ‘okay, we're gonna learn how to swim,’” she said.
So, as Denny put it, swimming is a life skill. And it’s hard to protect your child from water if you can’t even protect yourself.
“I think as a parent, we would do anything for our children. And if the child was to start to struggle in the water, as a parent you would want to be able to intervene. And so just some basic swim skills, even for the adults, would be very important,” she said.
Never leave your child unattended
Denny said for new swimmers, an adult should be at an arm's length away from the child. Plus, she added, it is helpful to have an assigned water watcher.
“If there's lots of families at the pool or at the ocean, and sort of everyone's keeping an eye on them, really if everyone's doing it, no one's doing it. And so one person who it’s very definitively their job. And maybe rotate that person every 20 minutes or something but…just because there's a lifeguard at a pool, doesn't mean we shouldn't watch our kids while they're swimming. It's just another added layer,” she said.
“Also knowing what to do if something were to happen and knowing how to perform CPR on children and adults can really have a profound effect on outcomes,” Denny said.
The American Red Cross has a database to help you find a child and baby CPR class near you, plus general CPR classes. The American Heart Association also has one to help you find classes near you.
Watch for signs of drowning
“Drowning happens quickly and quietly. It's not all the drama that you might imagine in your head with yelling and arms flailing. Kids just kind of slip under the water. [That’s] why constant attentive supervision is really important when kids are in and around water,” Denny said.
Can I get my kids protective water gear instead?
When it comes to floaties, Denny said she would not consider them a water safety tool because they can come right off of your child’s arm. They should be used as a water toy instead. She said if families want water gear for safety, then they should get a US Coast Guard approved life jacket or a personal flotation device.
Do I just have to be cautious around pools and the beach?
Unfortunately, no. Denny said that you really have to be cautious around all bodies of water, regardless how small.
She said that certain age groups are more likely to drown in certain areas. If your child is less than one year old, the most common place is in the home. Which could be a bucket of water, a toilet, or a bathtub. One to four year olds are more likely to drown in a pool. And adolescents are more likely to drown in an open body of water, such as a lake, ocean, or quarry.
“But really anywhere your child is where there's water, you need to be careful. There's that risk of drowning,” Denny said. “[And] skills in one aquatic environment don't necessarily translate to skills in another. So if you've got a pretty strong swimmer in a swimming pool, and then you take them to the ocean, that doesn't necessarily 100% translate.”
As drowning remains the number one cause of death for kids under 4, it’s crucial to keep your child safe near water. Swimming lessons, adult supervision, CPR, and the correct water gear can help prevent your child from drowning, but aren’t the only ways. Knowing the natural risks of each body of water can also help keep the number of fatal child drownings from rising.
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