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Your Guide to Water Safety

pool safety

At only 3 1/2, Weston Letter already knew how to swim, and he could almost get up on water skis. "We're water people -- we live in Gilbert, Arizona, where there are lakes and pools everywhere," says his mother, Druann. But one afternoon when she was in the house and his father was in the garage that overlooks the backyard, Weston wandered out to their pool and fell in. He was out of sight for only a few minutes, but by the time his parents found him, it was too late. "My husband is a firefighter and saves lives. I'm a first-grade teacher and a safety freak -- probably one of the most overprotective moms you'll ever meet," says Letter. "But together, we couldn't save our little boy." As parents, we try to do everything humanly possible to protect our kids. Yet, as the Letters learned that day, you can never be too careful around the water. Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional deaths for children in this country, just behind motor-vehicle crashes, and more than 700 children drown every year, says Ileana Arias, PhD, director of the Injury Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But here's some reassuring news: In a world where danger often seems to lurk everywhere, tragedies in the water are actually something that every one of us can avoid.

"Most children drown because their parents turn their head for just a second or have no idea that their child is even near the pool," says Letter, who founded Water Watchers, a water-safety program run by Phoenix Children's Hospital, to honor her son and prevent similar tragedies. In nine out of 10 drownings, parents or caregivers say they'd been supervising the child at the time, according to research by Safe Kids Worldwide. But kids -- especially toddlers, who are at highest risk -- are impulsive and fast. They'll dart out a screen door, crawl through the doggy door, or wander into the pool area to get a toy.

"Almost all children who've drowned had been missing for less than five minutes," adds Tiffaney Isaacson, coordinator of Water Watchers. "However, four minutes under water can cause permanent neurological damage. If you have a pool and you don't know where your child is, always look in the pool first."

When a child drowns, it's nothing like what you might see on TV or in the movies. "Toddlers don't yell or splash, and they sink fast," warns Steven Kernie, MD, a pediatric critical-care physician at Children's Medical Center Dallas. Ironically, many drownings occur at parties with plenty of adults around. "Everybody assumes that someone else is watching the water," says Dr. Kernie. "That's why it's critical to designate one adult to keep an eye on the kids and the pool all the time."

Watching your child at the pool doesn't mean glancing up periodically while you're chatting on your cell phone or grilling burgers on the deck. "You have to engage in active supervision. That means being in the water with children who are just learning to swim, and by the side of the pool -- no farther than arm's length away -- for other children, and keeping your eyes on them every second," says Alan Korn, director of public policy for Safe Kids. "You can't assume that just because your child is a good swimmer he won't drown. At no age is a child drown-proof."

In the past, pediatricians have worried that enrolling children younger than age 4 in swimming lessons might actually make the toddlers less cautious around water and give parents a false sense of security. However, a recent study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that kids between the ages of 1 and 4 who took formal lessons had a significantly lower risk of drowning than kids who hadn't taken lessons -- and as a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics is in the process of revising its recommendations about water classes for young children. However, kids who've taken lessons still need constant supervision in and around the water.

Learning to swim is one thing, but experts say we should also be teaching about water safety in schools. "Why teach drowning prevention to kids when it's a parents' responsibility?" Letter asks rhetorically. "Sad but true, many school-age children are asked to supervise siblings in the water when they're not prepared to handle an emergency. Kids think the best way to save someone is to jump in and pull them out, but that puts them at risk for drowning themselves." Instead, teach your child to call out for help first, then lie down on at the side of the pool and extend a life ring, a pole, or a towel to a struggling swimmer. Unfortunately, many pool owners don't always keep safety equipment on deck or take precautions that can help prevent serious accidents. Whether you own a pool or are swimming at a friend's house, your child's safety is your responsibility. "Parents need to build layers of protection. Fences, covers, and alarms all help," says Marcia Kerr, a product-safety investigator at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "But the first line of defense is you."

  1. Don't take your eyes off children when they're in the water -- ever.
  2. Swim only when a lifeguard is on duty and in designated areas.
  3. When boating, canoeing, tubing, waterskiing, or riding a Jet Ski, make sure everyone wears a personal flotation device that is approved by the Coast Guard (check the label).
  4. Never let your child dive if you don't know how deep the water is or if there could be hidden dangers below.
  5. Understand the meanings and obey the warnings of the colored flags placed near the shore by lifeguards.
  6. Stop swimming at the first sign of bad weather: storm clouds; thunder and lightning; rough, foamy water.

This season, all public pools must be in compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. This federal law mandates that they must have anti-entrapment drain covers installed. Pools that have a single main drain must have additional protection like an automatic release system that shuts off the pump and prevents swimmers from getting caught in the powerful suction. These precautions are also important for home pools and hot tubs. When you're at a public pool, follow these safety essentials as well:

  • Swim only when a lifeguard is on duty, but don't rely on her to supervise your child.
  • Always have one hand on your baby even if he's in an inflatable ring, and make sure that young kids are in arm's reach. No child should ever swim alone.
  • Don't allow kids to dive into less than EIGHT feet of water. Never permit diving in an above-ground pool.

Any of these serious problems increase the risk that a child could drown in a pool.

A fence kids can get over, under, or through.

The safest fence is a four-sided isolation fence that's at least four to five feet high, with spacings between vertical slats that are no wider than 4 inches apart, or 1 3/4 inches apart for a lattice-work fence. A chain-link fence can be tempting for children to climb.

Tables and chairs outside the pool area.

If they're left in the backyard, kids could push them up against the fence and climb into the pool area.

An unlocked sliding door or dog door.

If your house is one side of the pool barrier, every door, window, and gate leading to the pool should be self-closing and self-latching and have an alarm that automatically resets after someone passes through. Check the devices at least once a month to make sure that they're working.

Water wings, floaties, inner tubes, noodles.

These are pool toys. If someone needs added support in the pool, use only flotation devices labeled "Coast Guard-approved."

Dangerous drain covers.

Install anti-entrapment drain covers, and find out if your pool needs a vacuum release system for the pump to limit chances that someone will be sucked under by a powerful filter.

A flimsy pool cover.

Look for a safety cover that attaches to the sides of the pool. It should be strong enough to prevent even adults from accidentally falling in.

Ropes and float lines tangled on the deck.

Without demarcations in the pool, swimmers won't know when they're in too deep -- or where it is safe for them to dive.

You may not think you have to worry as much when your kid is splashing around in a blow-up kiddie pool, but children can drown in as little as an inch of water (and certainly in a bathtub or a bucket of water). "Little kids, whose bodies are naturally top-heavy and who don't yet have the upper-body strength to lift themselves out of a dangerous situation, can easily drown by slipping over the soft side of an inflatable pool," says Safe Kids' Alan Korn. Be sure to empty it after each use. If you have a large above-ground pool, it's important to get a fence and also make sure the ladders and the filters at the side of the pool are inaccessible to little climbers.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Parents magazine.