Part of summer’s magic, no matter where you live, is the time you spend on the water. Whether on the beach, at the lake, canoeing a favorite river, or dipping in Grandma’s pool, water activities and summer memories are intertwined.
Unfortunately, summer water outings can turn tragic in the blink of an eye. Each year, nearly 1,000 children die by drowning, the single leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4. Even in cases of nonfatal drowning injuries, most kids need ER care, and about half need further hospitalization.
So how do we keep our kids safe around the water? Eric Peters, MD, board-certified pediatric intensivist and pediatric medical director, Overland Park Regional Medical Center, and Hilary Nash, MD, family practitioner also at Overland Park Regional, share some water safety tips.
How could that happen?
“Drowning is often silent and can happen very quickly,” says Dr. Peters. “It takes only seconds for a child to drown. Drowning deaths often occur when kids aren’t expected to be swimming or when they have unanticipated access to water.”
We all know we need to be diligent about safety in pools or lakes or other large bodies of water, but we actually need to practice water safety anywhere children, especially curious toddlers, have access to water. This includes the bathroom, shallow wading pools, even a full bucket of water, all of which can present danger to little ones.
The highest rate of drowning deaths is in children aged newborn to 4 years, followed by adolescents and teens 15 to 19 years of age. As to how it happens:
- Most infants (under 1) drown in bathtubs, buckets and toilets
- The majority of preschool-aged children drown in swimming pools
- Most drownings in older kids and teens happen in bodies of water such as lakes and rivers
Scary as all this is, there are some sound strategies for keeping kids safe around water.
The text you just got? Not that important! Avoid distractions.
Not surprisingly, says Dr. Nash, water safety starts with some common sense steps. First and foremost, don’t be distracted when small children are near water.
“Toddlers can drown in less than 2 inches of water,” says Dr. Nash. “We need to use common sense any time little ones are around water, even small amounts like a bucket or a bathtub.”
- If you have a pool in your backyard, isolate it with four-sided fencing that’s at least four-feet tall with self-closing and self-latching gates.
- If you have a neighbor with a pool, make sure theirs is also safety proof since children are often drawn to water they have easy access to.
- Whenever your toddler is around water, make sure an adult who isn’t distracted is in constant supervision within an arm’s reach so he or she can pull the child out of the water if the child's head becomes submerged.
- If you are with a group of adults, take turns to watch the kids. If it’s “your hour”, you must put down that phone. Take off the earbuds. Get in the water with them. No matter what, do not allow yourself to be distracted.
- Empty buckets and other containers immediately after use.
- Don't leave young children alone in the bathroom and place locks on toilets.
Make like a fish
Consider swim lessons for kids, starting around age 1, advises Dr. Nash. “Talk with your pediatrician about whether your child is developmentally ready for swim lessons and then look for a program with experience teaching kids.”
Because even the best swim lessons can’t drown-proof a child, take steps to make your child or grandchild is safe around water. That starts with making sure they wear U.S. Coast Guard- approved life jackets when near water or swimming.
There are lots of pool toys and “accessories” that we mistakenly think are safe, but floaties are not safety devices, nor are noodles, water wings or inner-tubes life jackets.
“If you own these ‘toys’ and have kids under 15, you need to throw them away,” advises Dr. Peters. “Floaties are not a water safety tool or a life-saving device in any way, shape, or form. They are actually dangerous in that they may give a false sense of security.”
How do I know if my child, or any other, is in trouble?
Because drowning happens so fast and so quietly, especially in young children, your need to be diligent and alert for signs the child may be struggling to stay afloat.
- Silence from a child or a look of panic or concern on their faces
- A child tilting his or her head back to try and keep their airways clear
- Moving his or her arms downward, as if trying to get a hold of something that’s not there
Should I learn CPR?
The quick answer is yes! for any number of reasons. Specifically, for kids in trouble in the water, immediate resuscitation, once they’re pulled out — even before the arrival of emergency responders — is the most effective means to improve the outcome of a drowning incident. Early bystander CPR, focusing on airway and rescue breathing before compressions, can help increase chances of survival.
If the unthinkable happens, what do we do?
You should absolutely call 9-1-1 immediately when a child:
- Struggles to breathe, is turning blue, or having a seizure that lasts 3-5 minutes
- Loses consciousness or is not responsive
- Loses consciousness, has persistent vomiting, is not responding normally or has significant uncontrolled bleeding – all of which might indicate a neck, spine or head injury
It’s important to note that there are rare cases of children breathing in water while swimming that can lead to trouble breathing hours after they're out of the pool. If your child has any signs of respiratory problems after water exposure (like wheezing or shortness of breath), see your doctor or go to the ER immediately.
Let’s not forget teens…
Your teens may know how to swim like a fish, but their drowning risk increases due to overestimating their skills and ability to get out of “water trouble,” lack of awareness of water currents or how deep the water is, and drinking or using recreational drugs while around water.
Some tips to hammer home:
- Insist on the buddy rule – never swim alone.
- Sign up for swimming, diving, and water safety or rescue classes. This not only gives him or her safety skills, but also raises awareness of reckless actions.
- NEVER swim or dive while drinking or using recreational drugs.
- Always check water depth before diving.