Water Safety

Drowning is one of the three leading causes of unintentional injury death for all children ages 0-19 years. It is the leading cause of injury-related death among children between 1 and 4 years old. Drowning often occurs silently when an unsupervised child is near water ― and it takes only seconds to drown.

Children can drown in just 1 inch of water, such as in buckets, bath tubs, wading pools, diaper pails and toilets. In addition, hot tubs, spas and open waters, such as oceans, rivers and lakes, pose a drowning threat to older children. The most common setting where children in the US drown is open water.

Consider these facts about drowning:

  • When a child is submerged for two minutes in water, he or she loses consciousness.
  • Brain damage can occur within five minutes of water submersion.
  • With each additional minute a child is submerged, the severity of the outcome worsens. 

Tips for preventing drowning

Follow these preventive steps to help protect children from drowning:

  • Never leave your child unsupervised near water at or in the home, or around any body of water, including a swimming pool.
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and infant and child first-aid. In case of an emergency, CPR can save lives, reduce the severity of injury and improve the chance of survival.
  • Do not rely on personal flotation devices (PFDs) or swimming lessons to protect your child.
  • Install four-sided isolation fencing around swimming pools.
  • Make sure you have rescue equipment, such as a rescue tubes or ring buoys, and a telephone and emergency phone numbers near the swimming pool.
  • Do not allow children to dive in waters less than 9 feet deep.
  • Insist that children wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device (PFD), such as life jackets, when boating, sailing or canoeing.
  • Teach your children to stay away from any body of water that has become frozen during the winter. Children can drown by falling through thin ice.
  • Teach children that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool.

Swimming pool safety

To protect your child from drowning in a swimming pool, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following tips:

  • Always supervise your child closely in or near a swimming pool. Never leave a small child alone in or near a pool, even for a moment.
  • Remove toys from the pool so that your child is not tempted to reach for them.
  • Always empty blow-up pools after each use, and put them away.
  • Do not let your child use a diving board in a pool that is not approved for it.
  • Avoid pool slides; they are very dangerous.
  • Keep electrical appliances away from the pool to prevent electric shocks.
  • Do not allow riding toys near pools.
  • Keep a telephone near the poolside for emergency use.
  • Install isolation fencing around the pool. A fence around your pool not only protects your child, but other children in the area as well. Fencing around pools should adhere to the following specification to maximize your child's safety:
    • The fence should separate the pool from the house and play area of the yard.
    • Fences around pools should have four sides and not include the wall of the house as one side.
    • Fencing must be at least 48 inches tall.
    • Spacing between the fence slats should be no more than 4 inches. For chain-link fences, the diamond shapes should not be bigger than 1 3/4 inches.
    • The fence should have a self-closing and self-latching gate, with latches that are above a child's reach. The gate should also open away from the pool, so that if a toddler leans against an unlatched gate, it will close.
  • Other helpful devices, which, when used with pool fencing, maximize the safety of your child, include pool alarms, door or gate alarms, and automatic pool covers that cover the pool completely. Make sure there is no standing water on the pool cover.

Water safety tips by age group

Infants (up to 1 year of age)

More than half of drowning incidents among infants less than 1 year of age occur in bathtubs or large buckets. Supportive baby bathtub "rings" do not prevent drowning incidents if the child is unsupervised. Water hazards in and around the home may include the following:

  • Buckets (especially 5-gallon size)
  • Diaper pails
  • Toilets
  • Ice chests with melted ice
  • Hot tubs, spas and whirlpools
  • Ditches and post holes
  • Wells
  • Ponds and fountains

The following are some drowning prevention tips to help keep your small children safe:

  • Never leave a young child alone in the bathtub, not even for a minute.
  • Don’t rely on supportive bathtub "rings," as they cannot protect your child from drowning.
  • Empty any buckets or other containers with liquids.
  • Keep bathroom doors closed and install childproof devices to keep your child out of the bathroom (such as doorknob covers).
  • Keep toilets closed and/or use childproof toilet locks.

Preschoolers (1 to 5 years of age)

Children between the ages of 1 to 4 most often drown in swimming pools, either at the child's home or at a friend's, neighbor's or relative's house. This often occurs when the preschooler wanders away from the house and into the pool, without parents being aware of the child's absence. Children can slip into swimming pools without a sound or splash.

Pools are especially hazardous if:

  • Children swim unsupervised
  • The pool is not properly fenced in
  • There is no telephone with emergency numbers nearby
  • There is no rescue equipment near the pool
  • Parents rely on personal flotation devices (PFDs) to keep their children safe

School-age children (5 to 12 years of age)

Children in this age group are more likely to drown in pools and bodies of waters such as oceans, lakes and rivers.

  • Always supervise your child when he or she is swimming in any body of water.
  • Do not let your child dive unless you know the depth of the water and it is at least 9 feet.
  • Do not allow your child to swim during thunderstorms or lighting storms.
  • Do not let your child rough-house with others in the water in ways that may be mistaken for drowning.
  • Teach your child to stay calm and tread water until help arrives if he or she drifts too far from shore.
  • Make sure your child wears a personal flotation device (PFD) approved by the U.S. Coast Guard when boating.
  • Do not allow your child to swim around boats and/or in areas where people are water-skiing.
  • Avoid letting your child play with blow-up water toys in water that is above their waist.
  • Never pretend you are drowning.
  • Never swim during a storm or if you can see lightning.
  • Wear a properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket near water.
  • Stay seated in a moving boat.

Adolescent children (12 to 18 years of age)

As children age, they become more at risk of fatally drowning in open water. When age is considered, most fatal open water drowning victims are teens ages 15-19 years. Although older children are more likely to know how to swim, they are at risk for drowning because they overestimate their skills and are unaware of water currents or water depth. Open water has hidden hazards that increase the risk of drowning. These include sudden drop-offs, dangerous currents, vegetation and rocks, colder temperatures and limited visibility. To protect your adolescent from drowning, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following tips:

  • Insist that your adolescent always swim with a buddy.
  • Use designated swimming areas and recreational areas whenever possible.
  • Encourage your adolescent to take swimming, diving, and water safety or rescue classes to give him/her the skills needed to swim and dive safely. These classes may also prevent your adolescent from acting recklessly.
  • Teach your adolescent never to swim or dive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Make sure your adolescent checks the depth of the water before diving.
  • Never swim in the ocean or other body of water without a lifeguard on duty.
  • Teach children that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool.

For more tips to help kids be water smart, download our Injury Prevention and Safety Activity Book for more kid-friendly information.

Download our Water Safety brochure

Our Water Safety brochure is available for download: