One hundred guests. Oodles of toddlers . A kickin’ band. An unfenced pool. It’s enough to make any parent sweat. But at a party in the San Francisco suburbs last summer, the vibe was chill. “The host had hired a lifeguard,”says guest Debbie Haderle. “Kids were swimming and parents were drinking margaritas.” When festivities moved to the dance floor, Haderle was alarmed to see the lifeguard himself boogying away. “The host assured me all the kids were out of the water,” she says.
But this mom of three wasn’t sold. She had just read a woman’s account of how her young son drowned in the pool at a busy vacation house. In the article, the mother urged parents to have a designated guardian watching the water even when people weren’t supposed to be swimming. Uneasy, Haderle went to the pool and was horrified to find a 2-year-old boy toeing the water’s edge. She swooped him right up. “His mom came running and was in tears when she saw him safely in my arms. She said, ‘We were in line to get him an ice cream and then he was gone.’”
Drowning can happen that fast—in the time it takes to order a rocky-road cone. Despite all we know about how to prevent it, drowning is still the leading cause of death by unintentional injury in kids ages 1 through 4 and the second-leading cause in kids ages 5 through 9 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (For kids ages 5 through 9, it is second only to motor-vehicle traffic.) Seven hundred children die every year and more than 6,000 suffer non-fatal injuries from incidents in pools, oceans, lakes, streams, bathtubs, and even buckets of water. However, more than half of young children ages 1 to 4 who drown do so in home swimming pools.
Yes, pools are an easy way to keep kids entertained for hours, but water has no mercy. “Having an unfenced pool is like having an uncaged lion in your backyard,” says Morgan Miller, wife of Olympian Bode Miller and mom of Emmy, whose tragic death at 19 months in a friend’s pool catapulted childhood drowning into the national spotlight last summer. “To a child, that big furry animal could look like something fun to play with. It’s appealing and tempting. But we as adults know that a lion is deadly and can kill your child.”
Stricter laws and continued public-awareness campaigns are crucial, but as we’ve seen with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other grassroots movements, nothing foments change like a mob of mad-as-hell parents. Parents like Nicole Hughes, whose son Levi slipped out of a house filled with people and drowned in an Alabama pool. Parents like Haderle, who read a heartfelt article written by Hughes and was later spurred to park herself poolside for the rest of that birthday party. And parents like you. You—and all of us—have the power to keep kids safe. Here’s how we can prevent even one more child from drowning.
As scary and upsetting as drowning is, it has to become part of the ongoing parenting conversation. “Parents talk about sleep schedules, car seats, and the best phone apps. Yet we don’t talk about the number-one thing that can snatch your child’s life in seconds,” says Hughes. Post stories on social media that show how drowning can devastate any family, at any time of year, at anytime of day. Share what you plan to do to help keep your kids safe. (We’ve got plenty of suggestions right here.)
If there’s a drowning or a nonfatal drowning in your community, talk about it with other parents, and use it as an opportunity to fight for better pool-safety regulations. “Many pool laws are made locally, and advocating at the local level is often the most effective way to achieve change,” says Parents advisor Gary A. Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio.
Equally important: Talk with your kids about all aspects of water safety. Nearly 70 percent of childhood drownings happen when kids aren’t swimming; they may wander over to a neighbor’s yard, slip through an unlocked back door during playtime, or tumble into a kiddie pool filled with rain water. “We should teach young children that water can be dangerous, just like cars,” says Tina Dessart, who oversees the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative, which focuses on the importance of learning to swim. “Tell them, ‘You don’t go in or near the water without a grown-up, just like you don’t cross the street without a grown-up. It is dangerous.’ You should regularly reinforce this message the way you do all other household rules.”
When everybody’s watching, nobody’s watching. That’s why safety organizations urge parents and caregivers to take turns being on official “water-watching duty” in group-swim situations. Don’t just give the idea lip service; you can be the one to get a rotation going. Wear a “water watcher” tag, then pass it to the next parent on duty. (Order a free one from abbeyshope.org/water-watchdog, or print and laminate an on-duty card from safekids.org or poolsafely.gov.) Keep one in your bag and pull it out when you’re meeting up with friends at the public pool or beach, even when there’s a lifeguard on duty. “Wearing it reminds me and everyone else that I’m on the job and they shouldn’t even be talking to me,”says Haderle, who started putting on a water-watcher lanyard after the pool-party incident last summer.
It’s also important to know what a child in distress looks like. Kids drown silently and quickly, often when they are vertical in the water with their head tipped back. Unlike what you see in movies, a child rarely splashes, flails his arms, or yells for help. Being a good water watcher is like being a good lifeguard: “You intervene when a kid may be even slightly in trouble so he doesn't get to the point of drowning,” says Linda Quan, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, in Seattle.
Lifeguards see it all the time. “Parents and caregivers show up at the pool, tell the kids to stay in the shallow end, and then go right on their phones,” says Josh Rowland, aquatics product manager for the American Red Cross. At the very least, unwatched kids end up being babysat by lifeguards or other adults. But children can silently slip beneath the surface and drown in seconds—the time it takes to post on Instagram. You don’t need to leave your phone at home—in fact, you should keep it fully charged and within reach so you can call for help in case of an emergency. However, silence that sucker and stow it in your bag. Then push your friends to do the same. And if you absolutely, positively must send an urgent email or make a call, find a responsible adult to stand in while you step away.
Even if you don’t live close to water, your child will end up near it at some point, whether on vacation or at someone else’s home. Taking swim lessons absolutely cannot “drown-proof” anyone, but according to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), swimming lessons maybe beneficial to children between the ages of 1 and 4. “The right time to start depends on an individual child’s emotional and physical readiness,”says Ben Hoffman, M.D., who is chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, the group that authored the statement.
If you’re not sure what that means for your kid, ask her pediatrician for guidance. Then, when it’s time, get lessons on the calendar pronto. “The goal with very young children is to make them comfortable in the water so that when they are developmentally ready, they can learn and use skills that could be lifesaving,” says Stephen Langendorfer, Ph.D., professor emeritus of kinesiology at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and who sits on the scientific advisory council for the American Red Cross.
When opening your pool for the season, hire a certified professional to check that the pool’s safety cover is working properly, the electrical components are up to snuff, and the fencing is solid, with self-closing and self-latching gates functioning a they should, says Alan Korn, executive director of Abbey’s Hope Charitable Foundation, which works to prevent child drownings and encourage active supervision in and around water. Ask your service provider to check for and repair loose screws or rough edges that could catch bathing suits or hair and possibly trap swimmers. It’s also critical—and required under the federal law the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act—to check for displaced or absent drain covers. “An exposed pool drain can entrap a swimmer at the bottom of a pool or spa or literally suck the insides out of the body,” says Korn. If you come across any pool or spa with an exposed hole at the bottom, alert the owner and keep everyone out of the water.
Knowing even basic CPR and acting immediately—instead of waiting for emergency responders—can make the difference between life and death in drowning cases or anytime a person's heart stops. Round up a group of parents and sign up for CPR classes together, or order a CPR party kit (gotothecprparty.org) to learn these skills at home. Buy an all-weather sign with CPR instructions to hang on the inside of your pool gate, and be sure to print your home’s address on it in permanent marker in case anyone needs to call an ambulance. Even if a child doesn’t need CPR after being submerged, having water in her lungs can still lead to serious trouble. “Watch for coughing, lethargy, and rapid breathing, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask your child’s doctor, go to the emergency department, or call 911,” says Dr. Smith.
A child can drown in less than 2 inches of water. Even the teensiest wading pool requires constant supervision and should be drained and placed well out of reach when it’s not being used. And as tempting as those large, inflatable pools look in the store, they often hold thousands of gallons of water that can’t easily be drained. In fact, they have become a particular threat: A study published in Pediatrics found that they are responsible for 11 percent of pool drownings among children under 5. If you do have one, surround it with a fence, cover it when not in use, and remove the steps or ladder once swim time is over.
Inside your home, be sure to empty buckets, install locks on toilets, and stay with your child during bath time. Any body of water demands serious attention, whether it’s on your property, your neighbor’s, or a playmate’s. “I wish there were more intensity behind this conversation and more focus on the drowning epidemic,” says Miller. “Had I been exposed to the reality that it is a silent killer and happens mostly during non-swim times, I feel I would have been better equipped to keep my daughter safe.”
These are pool toys. If someone needs added support in the pool, use only flotation devices labeled "Coast Guard-approved.
While a four-sided fence that separates a pool from the house and backyard may not seem “pretty,” the aesthetics of drowning are far uglier. Levi Hughes died at a home with three-sided fencing, which may have protected neighboring kids from entering the pool area but still allowed a child to slip out a back door and into the water. “I have to live the rest of my life with the guilt that I could have prevented him from dying,” says Nicole Hughes. “But this isn’t about our regret and heartache. Drowning doesn’t happen to the parents; it happens to the child. Levi will never trick-or-treat again and will never turn 4 years old.”
Although experts recommend four-sided fencing around a pool perimeter, it is not legally required in the U.S. Even in California, where one of the nation’s toughest pool-safety laws went into effect in 2018, owners of every new and newly renovated pool are required only to install at least two of seven specified drowning-prevention safety features—but four-sided fencing is just one of the options. In Australia, where nearly all states now require four-sided, non-climbable pool fencing, pool-drowning deaths dropped by half from 2011 to 2015 after the implementation of the law. In other words, law or no law, you should invest in four-sided isolation fencing if you own a pool. And when you meet parents of potential playmates, suss out if they have water on their property and whether it’s properly fenced with a self-latching gate. No four-sided isolation fence? No playdates at that house.
Install a fence at least 4 feet high around all four sides of the pool. The fence should not have openings or protrusions that a young child could use to get over, under, or through.
Make sure that the gate leading to your pool is self-closing and self-latching, and that it opens out. Latches should be above a child's reach, and the space between the bottom of the fence and the ground should be less than 4 inches. Never prop open a gate to the pool area.
The inside of your playroom looks like a cyclone hit it? No biggie. But if you have a pool, be crazy-compulsive about keeping it shipshape. When the water is clean and clear, it’s easier to see what’s happening under the surface, and you also reduce the risk of waterborne illnesses. After swim time, collect and stow all toys and floats, which can be tempting to curious kids. You should also install and maintain a pump to prevent potentially deadly puddling on your pool cover, and make sure to keep a lifesaving ring, floats, and a shepherd’s crook reaching pole in the same spot at all times.
“Kids are fast, curious, and mobile,”says Dr. Hoffman. In-ground pool alarms, motorized pool-safety covers, dead-bolt locks on back doors, four-sided pool fences, and Coast Guard–approved flotation devices are all good and vital options that can stand between your family and devastating tragedy. "You should be able to hear a buzzing noise every time the door or gate opens," says Tom Krzmarzick, MD, medical director of the Regional Pediatric Trauma and Emergency Center at the Children's Medical Center of Dayton. It's safest to also invest in a sonar device that sets off an alarm when something enters the water; if that isn't practical, get a floating alarm that goes off if the water is disturbed.
Cover your pool with a rigid safety cover (preferably a motorized one) whenever you're not using it, even during swimming season. With an above-ground pool, remove ladders and steps when they're not in use. Make sure the cover fits securely over the pool's entire surface. Otherwise, a child may get under it and become trapped.
Your child might run after a ball, for example, and trip. "I remember a 2-year-old who rode his tricycle into the pool area and fell off into the water," says Rohit Shenoi, MD, an emergency-room physician at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston.
Few parents realize that children can die in a pool or hot tub by getting sucked down and trapped in a drain. The good news: Since the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act went into effect in December 2008, there have been no drain entrapment-related deaths involving children in public pools and spas.
This federal law mandates that all public pools must have anti-entrapment drain covers installed. But always be aware of drain condition at your neighborhood pool. If you spot a broken or missing drain cover, ask your pool operator if your pool or spa drains are compliant with the Pool and Spa Safety Act.
If you have a home swimming pool, ask your pool service representative to update your drains and other suction fitting with anti-entrapment drain covers and other devices or systems. Your pool should also have at least two drains for each pump, which will reduce the powerful suction if one drain is blocked, says Dr. Shenoi. Single-drain pools, hot tubs, whirlpools, and spas should have safety vacuum-release systems, which automatically release the suction if a drain is blocked.
Other smart tips to follow: Watch your child closely and make sure she doesn't swim or play near drains. Tie her hair back or have her wear a bathing cap, and make sure her swimsuit fits snugly, with no loose ties.