Kids are fascinated by water! Unfortunately, a young child’s fascination with water can also lead to the scary reality of accidental drowning. Here’s are a few essential safety rules for kids to make sure they don’t get in over their heads.
The Staggering Stats of Drowning
According to the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an average of 10 kids die per day from accidental drowning. WHAT?!
Way too many children drown every year. But you can make a difference in bringing down this tragic number.
I'm going to show you how to make nearly every body of water—from a puddle to your bathtub to the pool to the beach—a whole lot safer for your family and friends.
Did you know that drowning can occur in very little water?
It's true. It can happen in a plastic wading pool, a pond, or even a deep puddle.
Drowning is a threat to children everywhere. Nationwide, it’s the number-one cause of accidental death in kids ages 1 to 4 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, in 2017 drowning killed 1000 children, and in March 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released updated guidelines for drowning prevention to combat the dangers of water for children.
Quick Drowning Facts (In the U.S.):
- Drowning is a leading cause of injury-related death in children, especially those younger than 4 and teens.
- Most kids with nonfatal drowning injuries need emergency room care. Half of them will need further care, often in a hospital.
- Surviving a drowning can leave someone with severe brain damage — 5%-10% of childhood drowning cases result in long-term disability (such as persistent vegetative state or quadriplegia).
How kids drown varies by age:
- Under age 1: Babies most often drown in bathtubs, buckets, and toilets.
- 1–4 years old: Young children most often drown in swimming pools, hot tubs, and spas.
- Older kids, teens, and young adults: Most drownings in these age groups happen in natural bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers.
That’s why learning water-safety essentials and being aware of drowning dangers is crucial.
Follow this lifesaving advice to help prevent drownings:
Rule #1: Always Stay Within Arms Reach
Kids who are not yet experienced swimmers need constant touch supervision when they’re playing near water.
That means you (or another responsible adult) should stay within touching distance in the water with your child at all times.
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.
Rule #2: Sign up your child for swim 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.
The AAP “does not recommend formal water safety programs for children younger than 1 year of age. The water-survival skills programs for infants may make compelling videos for the Internet, but no scientific study has yet demonstrated these classes are effective.”
I started lessons for my kids when they were about a year old because I wanted them to be comfortable in the water to make learning to swim easier. By the time they were 3, they were well on their way to being good swimmers.
Where to Find Swim Lessons
Check local recreation centers for classes taught by a qualified instructor. Younger kids also can benefit from lessons. They won't yet learn to swim, but these can help them start to learn about water safety. And if you don't know how to swim, consider taking lessons.
You also can search online for classes:
- Your neighborhood pool
- Red Cross
- Local Recreation Centers
- Goldfish Swim School
- For more ideas, try searching for “kids swim lessons near me” in Google.
So even with the knowledge and skill that my kids had, I didn't trust them on their own in any kind of water.
That's because when things were great and predictable, they were fine. However, if they got surprised or pulled under the water, they would start sputtering and choking.
Which leads me to…
Rule #3: Pay Close Attention When Your Child is Near Water
Drowning can happen quickly. How quickly? In about 30 seconds.
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.
I think that's the scariest thing about drowning – it's not big and dramatic like you expect it to be.
By keeping your attention on your child instead of your phone or your friends, you can go a long way toward preventing an accidental drowning.
Rule #4: Don’t rely on water floaties of any kind. Ever.
Flotation devices (like arm or waist floaties, foam noodles and more) were never meant to be life preservers. Please, whatever you do, don't use them that way.
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.
According to the AAP, Small children and nonswimmers should always wear a well-fitting U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when they are near water and when swimming. That's the only approved type of flotation device for safety.
Remember to keep all floating toys out of the pool when they’re not in use; otherwise, they may attract a toddler into the water.
And whatever you do, just say no to toy mermaid fins! They can trap your child’s legs, preventing her from easily kicking her way up to the surface from under the water.
All children should be also be required to wear a life jacket whenever they are in or on watercraft, and all adults should wear them when boating to model safe behavior and to facilitate their ability to help their child in case of emergency.
Rule #5: Ignore your phone
Make a decision: 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.
Just the time it takes to check a text message is long enough for a child to drown.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you should leave your phone at home; it’s best to keep it charged and easily reachable in case of emergency.
Rule #6: Make older kids buddy up
Swim time is not the time to let kids be alone.
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 is just a supplement.
Rule #7: Have Protective Barriers In Place
Have a pool at home?
Barriers must be in place to prevented unanticipated access to water.
What kind of barriers? Four-sided fencing with a locking gate that isolates the pool from the house has been shown to prevent more than 50% of swimming pool deaths in children.
Door alarms, pool alarms and rigid pool covers are other possible but less-studied prevention strategies (but I wouldn't rely solely on any of these – use them in conjunction with a solid fence).
Rule #8: Teach your child these rules
For easy memorizing, stick to these five rules:
- No running
- No diving in the shallow end
- No pushing people in
- No pulling other kids under the water
- 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.
Safety Rule #9: Be aware of the hazards at home
Most deadly accidents affecting young kids happen in backyard pools, but there are also sneaky hazards around the house. That’s why being aware of drowning dangers and safety precautions is so important.
Here's where to start:
Bathtubs: Never leave a child under 4 alone in the tub or near a running bath. A school-age child can bathe by himself — but a parent should stay within earshot.
Baby bath seats or rings: Never leave your child unattended in a bath seat — he could slip down into the water and get trapped underneath, or the ring could tip over.
Buckets and containers: A curious toddler can fall headfirst into a water-filled bucket and be unable to get out. Even a cooler filled with melting ice can be a drowning hazard. Always make sure to empty after use.
Toilet bowls: Keep toilet cover down and bathroom door closed at all times. Install a toilet-cover safety latch.
Rule #10: 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 (or assumed that other parents are watching).
A simple but effective strategy 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. 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. It can impair your judgment. Save the wine for when the kids go to bed.
Rule #11: Know 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.
If the heart stops, continuing to circulate blood to the brain helps prevent a horrible outcome, as I have learned in my many years of CPR certifications.
In fact, I recommend that all parents would be trained in CPR and first aid, because, you just never know when you'll need it.
The American Red Cross is a great place to start when looking for classes.
If you’re untrained (or rusty on CPR), do chest compressions (100 per minute), and don't worry about rescue breathing (also known as mouth-to-mouth).
When it comes to drowning, doing something is always better than doing nothing.
Learn & Know the Signs of Drowning
Movies and media show a panicked version of what it looks like to drown. But real drowning looks nothing like shows or movies. In fact, it can sometimes look like playing around rather than life and death.
Here are the signs according to the AAP:
- Hyperventilating or gasping
- Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
- Trying to roll over on the back
- Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder
- Head low in the water, mouth at water level
- Head tilted back with mouth open
- Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
- Eyes closed
- Hair over forehead or eyes
- Not using legs — vertical
What to Do in an Emergency
If a child is missing, always check the water first. Survival depends on a quick rescue and restarting breathing as soon as possible:
- If you find a child in the water, get the child out while calling loudly for help. If someone else is nearby, have them call 911.
- Check to make sure the child's air passages are clear. If the child is not breathing, start CPR if you are trained to do so. Follow the instructions the 911 emergency operator gives.
- If you think the child has a neck injury, such as from diving:
- Keep the child on his or her back.
- Brace the neck and shoulders with your hands and forearms to help keep the neck from moving until emergency help arrives. This can help prevent further injury to the spine.
- Keep the child still and speak in calm tones to keep the child comforted.