Preventing Drowning Accidents: How to Keep Your Child Safe

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Parent and child holding hands at a pool Summer is finally here! We don’t know about you, but we’re more than ready to ramp up the trips to the pool and beach to stay cool while we enjoy the season. However, with all that fun comes an increased risk of drowning. Drowning is the leading cause of death for young children aged 1-4, and the second leading cause of death for children  aged 5-14.

Each year almost 800 children from birth to 17 years old – or two children a day – lose their lives while bathing, swimming or playing in or around water. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths occur between May and August. Thousands more children will be treated at hospitals for near-drowning accidents. For every single death, another five children visit an emergency department because of a non-fatal drowning incident.

We spoke with Gina Duchossois, MS, an injury prevention expert with the Injury Prevention Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Chair of Safe Kids Southeastern Pennsylvania Coalition, to find out what parents should know about preventing drowning accidents and what steps they can take to keep their kids safe.

The hidden hazards of open water

Safety experts have focused drowning-prevention efforts on swimming pools and, for younger children, in bathtubs and smaller containers of water. Those are still big risks, and parents should never leave children unattended when they are in or near any water, even for a minute. But the risks to children and teenagers in open water haven’t received as much attention.

“The big eye-opener in the study is that the greatest number of drownings occur in open water,” says Duchossois, “in ponds, lakes, rivers and the ocean. Also, the risks of open-water drowning go up in the teenage years, especially among boys.”

Reasons for the increase vary and include the following:

  • The water can be murky or cloudy, so a swimmer of any age can’t see rocks, logs, underwater plants or sudden drop-offs.
  • Distances and depths are hard to gauge. In open water it can be hard to tell how far you are from the shore or how deep the water will be with the next step.
  • Currents and tides make open water unpredictable. Rivers can sweep a child downstream and ocean currents can carry them along the shore or out to sea. Tides, too, change the water terrain. What began a gentle slope in shallow water in the morning, may become a sudden drop to deep water in the afternoon.
  • Weather and seasonal changes can have a big effect on water conditions. Heavy rains and seasonal flooding can create powerful currents, even in ponds and rivers where none existed in the dry season.
  • Cold water can shock you when entering the water, causing panic and reducing your ability to swim. This is particularly true when a child falls into water accidentally from a dock or boat.

Water safety tips

Drowning occurs quickly and quietly, so parents can’t assume they will be alerted by yells or splashes. In real life, there is very little splashing, waving or screaming. It’s critical to pay close attention and to prepare your child with basic water safety skills.

  • Watch children when they are in or near the water, without distraction. Go in the water with young children and inexperienced swimmers and keep them within arm’s reach.
  • Always swim with a partner. Whenever teens swim without you, they should always swim with someone else, tell you who that person is and where they will be swimming. The same goes for adults!
  • Be clear which adult is watching. If several adults are present, take turns as “water watcher” and always know who that person is. Change watchers every 15 minutes so you stay alert and focused.
  • Install fences around home pools. A pool fence should surround all sides of the pool, be at least four feet tall and include self-closing and self-latching gates.
  • Empty kids’ pools after each use. Store them upside down so they don’t collect water.
  • Make sure kids learn how to swim and develop these five water survival skills:
    • Step or jump into water over their head
    • Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute
    • Turn around in a full circle and find an exit
    • Swim 25 yards to exit the water
    • Get out of the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.
  • Enroll your children in swimming lessons. Children age 4 and older should be taught to swim. Some evidence shows benefit to teaching even younger children.
  • Teach children how swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool. Explain about murky water, uneven surfaces, sudden drop-offs and currents (especially undertow and rip tides if you are swimming in the ocean).
  • Have children wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets when they are out in a boat and, for beginners and non-swimmers, whenever they are near water. Make sure the life jackets are appropriate for the child’s age and weight and fit securely.
  • Use recreation areas designated for swimming. These have been checked for hazards and often have lifeguards.
  • Learn basic water rescue skills and CPR. The quick application of CPR could save a life. CHOP offers a training video along with links to other helpful CPR resources.

Gina P. Duchossois, MS, is an injury prevention expert with the Injury Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Chair of Safe Kids Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Contributed by: Gina P. Duchossois, MS

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