Preventing Drowning Accidents: How to Keep Your Child Safe

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Mom with son on doc looking at the water Summer is finally here! We don’t know about you, but we’re more than ready to ramp up the trips to the pool, beach and water parks to stay cool while we enjoy the season. However, with all that fun comes an increased risk of drowning.

This year, more than 1,000 children are projected to die in drowning accidents, according to a new report from Safe Kids Worldwide. Most of those deaths will occur in the months of June, July and August. Thousands more children will be treated at hospitals for near-drowning accidents.

We spoke with Gina Duchossois, 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 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, on 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.”

  • 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 even out to sea. Tides, too, change the water terrain. What was a gentle slope of shallow water in the morning can 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 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. 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. Teens, when they swim without you, should always swim with someone else, and should 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.
  • Make sure beginner swimmers know five key water survival skills. They should be able to:
    • Step or jump into water over their head and come back up to the surface
    • Turn around while in the water and face the shore or an adult
    • Float or tread water
    • Move forward in the water while breathing
    • Get out of the water onto the shore
  • Enroll your children in swimming lessons. Children over 4 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 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.

Contributed by: Gina P. Duchossois, MS