Whether you’re jumping in the lake to beat the summer heat or splashing in the hotel pool mid-winter, swimming is a fun and relaxing pastime. But without the proper safeguards, it can also be risky – especially for kids.
When I ask parents about water safety, they usually agree that keeping an eye on their children in the water is important. However, there’s a misconception that if their child were struggling, they would “hear it”. The sad truth is that drowning is silent.
There’s also a false sense of security when more adults are around. Parents can feel that with more eyes available to watch, children are safer. But actually, when “everyone” is watching, no one is really watching. As a result, a fun get-together can turn into an emergency quickly.
Swim safety by the numbers
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 10 people die each day in the United States from non-boating related drownings. And boating-related drownings add almost one more additional death each day.
Twenty percent of these drowning deaths are children 14 and younger. And most of the drownings in children ages 1 to 4 occur at home in swimming pools, tubs or other containers holding water.
Water safety tips for parents and caregivers
Fortunately, most water incidents can be avoided by following these seven tips whenever your family is on the lake or at a pool:
1: Designate a water watcher every single time children are in or near the water
The water watcher should know CPR and how to swim. And I recommend using a water watcher card to make sure that one person is always actively watching the water. This card can be passed from adult to adult. Whoever is holding it knows it’s their responsibility to be watching the water, and that that’s the only task they should be doing. Water watching is not something you can do while also reading, texting, socializing or drinking alcohol. If you take on the role, be sure to have a phone close by at all times in case you need to call for help. And if a child is missing, check the pool or lake first.
Community organizations, as well as the American Heart Association, American Red Cross and local fire and EMS agencies often offer CPR classes at various locations.
3: Make sure every member in the family learns water survival skills
For me, this is the most important rule. And the best way to accomplish it is through swimming lessons. Swimming lessons teach children what to do if they fall in, how to get to an edge, and how to get out of the water. And they teach important techniques such as floating on your back. Young or inexperienced swimmers should wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, especially near or on open water. And you should always stay within an arm’s reach of infants and toddlers.
4: Avoid inflatable swimming aids (e.g., floaties)
These don’t necessarily help a child float safely and can give a false sense of security for both children and parents. While they’re fun accessories for kids, they’re no substitute for U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets. It’s best to skip the arm floaties when on a boat or dock, and instead equip kids with a life jacket and swimming lessons to become a stronger swimmer.
5: Enforce basic water safety rules
Make sure that everyone in the family, or the group you’re with, knows and agrees to follow basic water safety rules. I recommend these rules:
- No diving
- Always swim with a buddy
- Walk – don’t run – by the pool or on a dock
- Stay away from pool drain covers
6: Check that the pool has safe and intact drain covers
Don’t use a pool if a drain cover is missing or broken. Children’s hair, limbs or swimsuits can get stuck in a drain or suction opening, trapping them underwater.
7: Make sure the pool in your yard or neighborhood is completely surrounded by a proper fence
The fence should be at least four feet high, not chain-link, and have no footholds or handholds that could allow a child to climb it. Latches to the fence’s gate should be out of children’s reach. It’s also recommended to install an audible gate alarm that will alert you inside the house if the gate is opened. And when it comes to kiddie pools or other containers of water, make sure to watch kids closely during play and always empty them after use.
When should kids start swim lessons?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids begin swim lessons as early as age one. Starting early helps babies get comfortable in the water and begin learning basic water survival skills from a young age.
During infant and toddler classes, parents or caregivers typically join their child in the water and swim together while an instructor leads them in simple activities. Of course, babies don’t have the strength and coordination to learn swim strokes or how to swim independently, but studies have shown that kids who take swim lessons between the ages of 1-4 may have a decreased risk of drowning.
It's important to remember that swimming lessons should never be seen as a substitute for adult supervision by the water.
By age four, kids are developmentally ready for swimming lessons – meaning their arm and leg strength, in addition to coordination, will allow them to learn the necessary moves and endurance. In fact, the AAP’s stance is that swimming lessons are vital for children ages four and older to learn important water safety skills.
When looking for a local swim class for your little ones, make sure that it’s lead by safety-certified instructors and that you’re comfortable with the level of involvement from parents.
Stay vigilant to keep kids safe
What other risks and injuries should parents be on the lookout for? Learn about some of the most common childhood injuries (and when specialized trauma care may be needed). And for another course on warm weather safety, check out these sun and water safety tips, and how to choose a sunscreen with safe ingredients for babies and kids.
Your child’s pediatrician is a great resource to ask for health and safety questions and advice.