Water Safety Essentials for Kids

Whether they're at the pool, beach, or lake, kids need extra protection when they're splashing around. Here, the latest advice from Parents magazine and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Prevent Drowning

More than 800 children drown every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Parents often assume they'll hear their child splash or cry if she falls into the water, but drowning is usually quick and silent. "Once a child's head goes underwater, it only takes a few minutes for her heart to stop and brain damage to occur," says pediatrician Gary Smith, MD, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.

Do keep your toddler or preschooler within arm's reach whenever he's in or near water. Never let an older child out of your sight.

Don't get distracted when your child is in or near a pool or has access to any water.

Do equip your pool with four-sided fencing at least four feet high, a rigid cover, and anti-entrapment drain covers. Empty kiddie pools and remove ladders to above-ground pools after using.

Don't leave pool toys in the water or near the pool area.

Do learn CPR and keep a cell phone handy in case of an emergency.

Don't rely on arm floats or air-filled tubes to keep your child safe. Have her wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life preserver if she's on a boat or near water.

Teach Your Kids to Swim

Babies and toddlers: Swimming lessons can help a young child feel comfortable in the water, but they won't prevent her from drowning. "Children are generally not developmentally ready for formal lessons until after age 4," says Dr. Smith. If you want to sign up for a class, choose a program that lets you stay in the pool with your child.

Preschoolers and older kids: After age 4, your child should learn how to swim, but you'll still need to supervise him in or around water. Look for a program that has certified instructors, groups kids according to their abilities, and includes water safety in the curriculum. Enroll your child in lessons every year to keep up his skills.

Avoid Swimmer's Ear

Unlike regular ear infections, which affect the middle ear, swimmer's ear is a painful infection in the outer ear canal -- where bacteria can multiply when moisture lingers after swimming.

What to do: Call the doctor if there's drainage from your child's ear, his outer ear is painful or swollen, or it hurts when he touches the lobe or tab in front of his ear. The doctor will probably prescribe antibiotic ear drops and have you keep the ear canal dry for three to seven days.

Prevent it: If your child is prone to swimmer's ear, turn his head from side to side to help drain the water out. Place a few drops of a solution made from equal parts rubbing alcohol and white vinegar. "The vinegar creates an acid pH that helps kill bacteria in your child's ear, and the alcohol helps water left in the ear canal to evaporate," says Dr. Smith.

Prevent Contaminated Water Infections

Over the last decade, more and more kids have been getting infections from contaminated water in swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans, according to the CDC. Known as recreational water illnesses, these infections are caused by germs that usually enter the water by fecal contamination. "The most common illnesses cause diarrhea and respiratory, eye, ear, and skin infections," says David Kimberlin, MD, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. To keep your child safe, follow these rules.

  1. Teach your child not to swallow or get swim water in her mouth.
  2. If you have a pool or a hot tub, check chlorine and other disinfectant levels on a regular basis.
  3. Use only public pools that require babies and toddlers who aren't toilet trained to wear swim diapers.
  4. Change your child's swim diaper often, or take her on frequent bathroom breaks. Have her wash her hands afterward.
  5. Wash your child off -- or make sure she showers -- before and after swimming.

Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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