What Is a Water Watcher—and How Can Identifying One Save Your Child’s Life?

Here's how to make one of the most important decisions of your summer, according to the experts behind 2023's swimsuit visibility study.

Mother and daughters in water wings at sunny summer swimming pool

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When it comes to summertime recreation and enjoying warm, sunny days with the ones we love, spending time near or in the water is often at the forefront of so many family activities. Swimming at the community pool, boating on the lake, and playing in the waves at the beach can be wonderful ways to create lasting family memories. Yet many parents lack basic safety knowledge that can help keep their children safe both in and around water. 

A Leading Cause of Death for Children

Natalie Livingston knows firsthand how dangerous the water can be for children. As the co-founder and owner of ALIVE Solutions Inc., she has nearly 27 years of experience in water safety and drowning education and is passionate about educating parents about water safety.  

“Drowning is a leading cause of death for children,” Livingston shares. “For me, every drowning we investigate is its own unique story [...] When I saw the approach many parents were taking around the water, I became personally more passionate about educating parents about what I knew about drowning and water safety.” 

According to the CDC, more children ages 1-4 die from drowning than from any other cause of death––and for children ages 5-14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death from injury. Sadly, many drowning deaths in these age ranges occur during family gatherings around a pool, and other drowning deaths occur when children access bodies of water without supervision. These deaths can occur in larger decorative ponds and unsecured pools, but even in areas as small as a bucket

Drowning can happen shockingly fast—in as little as 20 seconds for a child—so every minute counts when a child has been submerged in water. It’s exceptionally easy for a child to slip underwater unnoticed––as contrary to what many parents might expect, a drowning event often happens quietly

Kevin Smith is a father and a grandfather and, in addition to swimming competitively when he was younger, was also a licensed water safety instructor with the Orangetown Township Aquatics Program for nearly a decade. During this time he trained dozens of lifeguards in lifesaving techniques.

“It’s not like on TV. They don’t splash and yell out ‘I’m drowning,’” Smith says of individuals in distress. “They go underwater and they’re out of sight. Once they go under, they take in water, and seldom come back up.” 

These statistics can be scary for parents planning water activities for their families. The good news though is that, in large part, many drowning accidents are preventable with just a handful of basic safety measures in place. One of the most important, and one that could very well save a child’s life, is designating a “water watcher” at every water or water-adjacent activity your child attends.

What is a water watcher?

What Is a Water Watcher?

Simply put, a water watcher is an individual designated to supervise children at all times when playing in or around the water. While this sounds simple, and many families might feel they accomplish this simply through their presence, Smith is quick to point out that when everyone is in charge, effectively, no one is. 

“You can’t have everybody in charge. If it’s a pool, put a whistle or something on the gate, and whoever is going to be watching the kids takes the whistle, and that means you don’t take your eyes off the water.” 

Smith notes that even when everyone is comfortable in the water, either as a swimmer or wearing lifejackets, it’s important to have a water watcher supervising all children. For instance, one of Smith’s relatives narrowly avoided tragedy earlier this year when, unbeknownst to the adults at a family pool gathering, their 3-year-old child managed to remove her life vest without anyone noticing. 

“They were only ten feet away [...] and next thing they know, she was under the water,” he said, highlighting how the situation could easily have ended quite differently. “Luckily they were able to go in, get her, and revive her, and everyone’s ok.” 

Livingston says effective water watchers should fulfill multiple requirements––one of which is that they should be fully physically capable of intervening when help is needed, and should be experienced swimmers themselves. This means water watchers should be able to reach the bottom of the pool (or other body of water), have hearing and vision capabilities adequate to supervise, and be someone you trust to completely avoid distractions while they’re “on duty.” 

In the end, if there isn’t an adult present at an event who parents trust to meet these requirements, they should feel comfortable declining the offer to swim, boat, or be near the water until they’re able to be there with their children. Through her work with Alive Solutions, Inc. she explores this concept of “limited trust” with frequency to empower other parents to put their children’s safety first when it comes to water. 

“I think parents need to feel empowered that they don't have to let others watch their children around the water,” Livingston says. “Other parents or grandparents may not have the same approach, mindfulness, focus, and physical capabilities that you do, so we always say to be very careful about who you allow to supervise your children around the water.”

“It is always okay to say no for water activities, and say yes to an alternate option that doesn't involve as much risk as water does.  It may not be easy, but it is worth it.”    

Be Wary of Distractions

For water watchers, distractions come in all shapes and sizes: chatting with other poolside parents, stepping away to care for another child, looking at your phone, or even something as simple as eating or drinking that requires your hands. Ultimately, a designated water watcher should do only that: watch the water and the children in it. Nothing else. A small task that takes “just a minute” can distract for more than enough time for a child to slip underwater unnoticed. 

While staying focused may sound easy enough in theory, this responsibility can prove quite difficult in practice.

“Lifeguarding for parents is something you have to learn,” Smith says. “You have to be extremely patient, and you’re going to be out of the circle because you’re going to be watching those kids. And you can’t take your eyes off them.“ 

This responsibility can become even more difficult if people in the group don’t understand the Water Watcher’s job or how the group can support them. This could include gestures as small as another adult helping kiddos who might need something away from the pool if their parent is the current water watcher. 

Share the Responsibility and Take Plenty of Breaks

Smith acknowledges that being a water watcher is an important job, and to do it well it’s especially important to take frequent, scheduled breaks, and ensure you have support and others to share the role with you. If possible, discuss in advance who will rotate water watcher duties and trade-off supervision every 20 to 30 minutes so everyone can enjoy some rest and relaxation.

Other Safety Measures To Implement in the Water

Establishing a water watcher routine for family activities this summer is one way to begin incorporating water safety into your outdoor recreation, and for those families who want to learn more about how to keep little ones safe, there are countless options available.  

Through her work with Alive Solutions, Inc., Livingston has compiled dozens of tips for families who want to improve their water safety understanding, and even wrote a blog post specifically outlining tips for vacationing near and on water

Alive Solutions, Inc. also conducts periodic studies dealing with swimwear visibility and recently released their 2023 testing results highlighting how well vibrant, neon colors show up against dark-bottomed water environments. This much-needed study has been shared countless times across social media platforms in an effort to educate families that even the color of their child’s swimsuit can affect their safety in the water. In an emergency situation where every second counts, being able to quickly locate a child can make all the difference. This year they even tested different pattern colors and sizes to see how these affect visibility, linking to their favorite swimwear that checks all the right boxes. 

Smith shared a favorite hack of his for helping young kids feel comfortable in the water: teach them how to hold their breath, and then introduce goggles so they can have fun exploring under the water. 

“Once you get them used to getting their face wet, you’re halfway there,” Smith says, emphasizing that this is even something you can have fun practicing in the bathtub. 

“Put things on the bottom of the tub and see if they can grab [it] while using their goggles,” he suggests.  

Smith says that for him, instilling good safety practices is important even for the very youngest children, and encourages parents to teach children to swim from a young age, wherever possible. And until a child is fully capable of swimming unassisted, Smith insists that no matter what, the best protection is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. 

“You have to have rules around the pool,” he says. “This is a jeopardy situation and you have to manage it the best you can.”

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