Last summer, many community pools were closed and many annual vacations to the beach were postponed or cancelled, so it’s likely been some time since parents put much thought into water safety. Now is a good time to refresh yourself on how to keep children and adolescents safe near water, and a good time to pass those lessons down to kids as well.
More than 850 children age 18 and under died by drowning in the U.S. in 2019, and drowning is the leading cause of preventable death in children age one to four. Almost 70 percent of drownings happen during what experts refer to as “non-swim times” – times when access to swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs and natural bodies of water was unplanned and unsupervised.
“It is during the non-swim time when everybody’s loading the car to start the vacation trip. When everybody’s watching the kid, then nobody’s watching,” said Nicole Hughes, a mother who now works extensively in drowning prevention after losing her three-year-old son Eli. “Our son drowned when there were six physicians in the room, 12 adults, 17 kids. Without realizing it, subconsciously you’re letting your guard down when there’s a bunch of people around. I relived these seconds a thousand times – how did we not see him go out that door?”
Because the majority of drownings happen when young children encounter water unsupervised, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other groups recommend that adults take a “layered approach” to water safety. This approach starts with taking steps to stop or limit unsupervised access to water:
- Fence and secure swimming pools. Research suggests this one step could prevent more than half of all swimming pool drownings of young children.
- Remove or fence other potential backyard water hazards like fountains and bird baths until children are older. Young children can drown in as little as two inches of water.
- Prevent children from going outside unnoticed by using safety gates, locks and doorknob covers. Remind older siblings to always shut the door when they leave the house so younger children can’t follow them.
- Empty open-topped water containers like buckets, wading pools and large coolers when they are not in use.
- Block unsupervised access to bathrooms to prevent toddlers from falling into filled tubs or toilet bowls.
By taking these steps, adults can prevent accidental access to water during those brief moments when children end up out of sight. The next layers of water safety include close and constant supervision when kids are around water, swimming lessons, CPR training for parents and caregivers and the use of life jackets. During parties with lots of children and adults where it’s easy to get distracted, it’s recommended to take turns having a “water watcher” – an adult who won’t participate in other activities, be on their cell phone, etc.
Risk for drowning decreases as kids grow out of their toddler years, but it spikes again for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19. For this age group, drowning is the second most common cause of preventable death (car accidents are first). These instances of drowning are more likely to be related to some level of risk-taking, such as jumping from a height into water. They also occur more often in the open water of lakes, rivers and oceans, where currents and conditions can change quickly and make swimming challenging even for people who grew up using a swimming pool.
To reduce these cases, parents should continue to remind adolescents that time on the water can be fun, but that it can also be dangerous. Parents should stress the importance of wearing life vests. In most states, life vests are only required during boating, which can lead both adults and children to assume that regular swimming or other water-based activities don’t bring any risk. “Wear life vests, just as you don’t get into a car without a seatbelt,” said Dana Gage, another mother who began working with the AAP as a water safety advocate after her son died of drowning. “Just because your child knows how to swim does not mean your child is drown-proof.”
Every parent wants to protect their children and make sure they stay safe. By taking these steps and taking water safety seriously, you can help drastically reduce drowning risk for kids of all ages.