Kelly Hines, of Indianapolis, almost drowned in her family's above-ground pool when she was 13 months old. Wearing a light-pink swimsuit, she walked over to the edge and then disappeared from view.
"Our pool was only 4 feet deep, but we couldn't see her," recalls her mother, Susan, who was on the deck with Kelly's twin sister. Luckily, Kelly's dad was standing in the water and able to find and retrieve her in time. "The next day I went and bought her a bright, multicolored swimsuit," Susan says.
Among children ages 1 to 4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whereas kids ages 5 to 14 are more likely to drown in oceans, lakes, or rivers. (Babies are at greatest risk in bathtubs.) It can happen in an instant, and what's more, drowning can be silent. Unlike what we've seen in movies, children do not always flail their arms around and scream for help.
Preventing a tragedy requires multiple layers of protection. Here are safety guidelines that every parent should follow.
Never take your eyes off your child when she is in the pool area. And if she's missing, check the pool first. Most kids who fall into pools do so when their parents are inside and have no idea their children are near the water.
"I have five children, and I know how hard it is to keep track of your child 100 percent of the time — but if you own a pool, you have to," says Tom Krzmarzick, MD, medical director of the Regional Pediatric Trauma and Emergency Center at the Children's Medical Center of Dayton. Emphasize the need for constant supervision to babysitters.
If you're at a residential pool, it's best to have a water-safety expert nearby, but lifeguards don't always notice when kids slip under the water, says says Parents advisor Martin Eichelberger, MD, president and CEO of Safe Kids and director of emergency trauma and burn services at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. It's up to you to keep your child safe.
"This is called isolation fencing, and it prevents direct access to the pool," says Williams. Isolation fencing that's tough for kids to climb on can prevent more than half of pool drownings, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
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.
Equip doors, gates, and windows that lead to the pool or hot-tub area with locks and alarms. Drowning victims have also used pet doors to gain access to pools.
"You should be able to hear a buzzing noise every time the door or gate opens," says Dr. Krzmarzick. 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.
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.
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.
"The most important factor in saving your child's life is to pull him out of the water quickly and start CPR immediately, even before EMS arrives," says Dr. Shenoi.
You should also keep rescue equipment such as a shepherd's hook — a long pole with a hook on the end — and life preserver near the pool and in an easy-to-reach location. The AAP advises choosing a shepherd's hook and other rescue equipment made of fiberglass or other materials that do not conduct electricity.
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 Dec. 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's 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.
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 Worldwide’s Alan Korn. Never leave an inflatable pool full of water.
These are pool toys. If someone needs added support in the pool, use only flotation devices labeled "Coast Guard-approved."
The bottom line is that drowning is almost always preventable, emphasizes Dr. Eichelberger. "Whenever you're in or near the water, you should be able to reach out and touch your child. Sadly, when a child drowns or is disabled after a near-drowning, parents have to live with the fact that they could have done something to protect him. You never want to be in that position."