Keeping kids safe in the water

Two-thirds of drowning deaths occur in the summer, between May and August, and most commonly on the weekends. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Swimming season has arrived, when families head to the pool, the lake or the beach. If Memorial Day is just the start of a long season of fun in the water – or even if your child, like almost every kid, will find herself near a body of water this summer – it’s time to brush up your water-safety know-how.

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on childhood and teen accidents, 983 kids ages 0 to 19 drowned in 2009. The organization Safe Kids USA says


  • Swimming pools are the most common site for a drowning to occur among children between the ages 1 and 4 year.
  • Approximately 72 percent of pool submersion deaths and 55 percent of pool submersion injuries happen  at a home.
  • Eighty-four percent of drowning deaths among children ages 5 and under occur at a home, while 45 percent of fatalities among children ages 5 to 14 occur at a public pool.
  • In one national study of drowning-related incidents involving children, a parent or caregiver claimed to be supervising the child in nearly nine out of 10 child drowning-related deaths.
  • Two-thirds of drowning deaths occur in the summer, between May and August, and most commonly on the weekends.         


What can you do to keep your kids safe around water? I asked Steven Shapiro, M.D., chair of the department of pediatrics at Abington Memorial Hospital and founder of Pediatric Medical Associates in East Norriton and Rydal, Pa. “We don’t want to take the fun out of swimming and water play for kids,” Shapiro says. “Parents who prepare ahead of time and are aware of the risks can protect kids. We’ve had a few near-drownings in kids seen in our practice. The most recent was 5 years ago. A family was at a pool party – a family that takes good care of its children – and a young child just got out of sight for a few minutes. The parents found him at the bottom of the pool. He was resuscitated quickly and is fine.”


His advice:

Start swim lessons early.  One study found that risk for drowning falls 88 percent when kids ages 1 to 4 take swim lessons.

Watch the water. But swim lessons don’t drown-proof kids. At the local pool, at pool parties and at lakes and the beach designate a ‘water watcher’ – an adult whose only job is keeping an eye on the kids in the pool. “This person shouldn’t be talking with other people, stopping to put sunscreen on their kid, talking on the phone or leaving for a minute for a drink or plate of food,” Shapiro says. Trade off on water-watching duties so nobody’s stuck for the whole afternoon — and so a fresh set of eyes is on the water at all times.

Check out the surroundings. Backyard pools should be surrounded by a fence a kid can’t get over, with a gate with a kid-proof lock or latch. “Don’t allow kids to visit a home with an unsecured pool,” Shapiro says. Notice where safety equipment like a pole or ring on a rope is located – and where the pool’s drain is. “Young children can get pulled down to a drain,” he notes. Take toys out of the pool and off the pool deck when swimming’s over so kids aren’t drawn back later.

Don’t confuse floaty toys with life jackets. “Water wings, 'bubbles' and other fun flotation equipment like pool noodles won’t keep a young child safe and upright in the water,” Shapiro says. “Never leave a child unattended in the water while wearing these.”

Avoid lake hazards. “Water shoes are a good idea for water play at a lake – they protect kids from sharp rocks and other things hidden on the bottom that can hurt their feet,” Shapiro says.  He says it’s also a good idea to call the local health department before a lake trip, to check for local outbreaks of water-borne illness. “I did that before a trip to a lake in the Poconos,” he says.

Swim at guarded beaches – the smart way. Don’t assume the guard can watch every kid, every second. Swim with your child or watch the water while a kid who’s old enough to go in by herself has fun. Avoid rip currents – channels of fast-moving water rushing quickly out to sea that may be choppy, sandy or foamy. Tell your kids what to do if they get caught in one: Yell for help, swim parallel to the shore and when you’re out of the current swim back in.