More than 600 children drown every year. But you can help bring down this tragic number. We’ll show you how to make nearly every body of water—from your bathtub to the beach—a whole lot safer for your family and friends.
Make no mistake: Drowning is a threat to children everywhere. Nationwide, it’s the number-one cause of accidental death in kids ages 1 to 4 and the second-most-common cause of injury-related death in children ages 1 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year upwards of 600 children under age 15 die from drowning, and seven times that many get treated in emergency rooms for nonfatal submersion injuries. Most deadly accidents affecting young kids happen in backyard pools, but there are also sneaky hazards around the house and at the beach. That’s why learning water-safety essentials and being aware of drowning dangers is so important. Start with this lifesaving advice:
- RELATED: Teach Your Child to Swim!
Rule #1: Never take your eyes off your child when she's in or around the water.
Sadly, young children can drown silently in as little as 25 seconds, even in the shallow end or in a baby pool, says Lois Lee, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency-medicine specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Kids who are not yet experienced swimmers need constant touch supervision when they’re playing in or near a pool or at the beach. That means you (or another responsible adult) should stay in the water with your child at all times, within touching distance, giving him 100 percent of your attention. Once your child has learned to swim long distances and float on his back, he won’t necessarily need you right next to him, but you should always keep him in sight, no matter how old he is. (Kids of all ages can get stuck underwater, grow tired, or become panicked.) And don’t assume you’ll hear your child yelling or splashing if he needs help—that’s something you see in the movies. In real life, most kids and adults drown quietly and quickly.
Rule #2: Ignore your phone.
Make a pact with yourself: When you’re at the pool or the beach or the lake, silence your phone and stow it out of reach in your bag so you’re not tempted to use it. “If you hear a text message come in and turn to your phone for five seconds, that’s long enough for a child to be submerged,” says Anne Beasley, M.D., a pediatric hospitalist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should leave your phone at home; it’s best to keep it fully charged and within reach in case of emergency. (You should also memorize the address of wherever you’re swimming so you can easily give your location to a 911 operator.)
Rule #3: Don’t rely on water wings, inflatable toys, floating loungers, or pool noodles.
“Parents put too much faith in flotation devices that were never made to be life preservers,” says James Callahan, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. If your little one is a nonswimmer, it’s okay to let her use floatie toys, but only if you’re right there next to her in the water. And just say no to toy mermaid fins; they can trap your child’s legs, preventing her from easily kicking her way to the surface from beneath the water. The only safe flotation device is a well-fitting Coast Guard–approved life jacket, and it’s not a bad idea to have a weak swimmer wear one while she’s in or around the water (though, of course, you still need to be with her too). Remember to keep all floating toys out of the pool when they’re not in use; otherwise they may entice a toddler into the water.
Rule #4: Sign up your child for swimming lessons.
What’s the right age to get started? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children ages 4 and older take swimming lessons. But don’t let lessons give you a false sense of security: Regardless of ability, all toddlers and preschoolers need a caregiver at their side in the pool.
Rule #5: Make older kids buddy up.
As an extra layer of protection, experts recommend that kids follow the buddy system. Pair your child with a friend or a sibling, and explain that each kid is responsible for knowing where her buddy is at all times. But don’t forget that a pal doesn’t replace adult supervision; the system serves as a supplement.
Rule #6: When there's a crowd, put a parent on lifeguard duty.
Or better yet, hire help. At a party or a gathering, it’s almost guaranteed that parents will get distracted and look away from the pool at some point. A simple backup to make sure that everyone’s safe: In addition to keeping track of your own kids, pay a pro or designate an adult “water watcher” and take turns every 15 minutes, suggests Dr. Beasley. That person’s only job is to sit on the edge keeping an eye on all of the children. If there are more than a few kids, designate multiple water watchers, with some swimming in the water with the littlest ones and others standing where they can observe the entire group. And don’t drink alcoholic beverages while your kids are swimming or hanging out by the pool; save the wine for when outdoor time is over for the day.
Rule #7: Teach your child the rules.
For easy memorizing, stick to these five: no running, no diving in the shallow end, no pushing people in, no pulling other kids under the water, and no swimming without adult supervision—ever. And remember: Children aren’t the only ones who shouldn’t swim alone; it’s not particularly safe for adults to swim solo either, says Dr. Callahan.
Rule #8: Learn CPR.
If the worst happens and you have to rescue a distressed swimmer, conducting CPR while you wait for an ambulance to arrive could save that person’s life. When the heart stops, continuing to circulate blood to the brain helps prevent a bad outcome, explains Dr. Beasley. “In a perfect world, all parents would be trained in CPR.” You can find a class through a community center or hospital, or via the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross. If you’re untrained or rusty on CPR, do chest compressions (100 per minute), and skip rescue breathing, also known as mouth-to-mouth. When it comes to drowning, doing something is always better than doing nothing.