Dear Doctor: Our summer is filling up with pool and beach activities, and though it’s great that our kids will get exercise and have fun, I’m also worried. The older boys are decent swimmers, but the youngest, who just turned 4, is still learning. How do we keep them all safe?
Dear Reader: Thank you for bringing up an important topic. With the hot (and hotter) weather and carefree summer vibe, water safety may not be the first thing on everyone’s minds. But according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death among children age 4 and younger. It’s the third-most-common cause of accidental death among children and adolescents between the ages of 5 and 19.
It’s great that your older kids can swim and that you’re making sure your youngest is learning. However, swimming skills alone aren’t enough to keep a child safe. As anyone who has spent time around kids at play knows, it’s basically chaos. That makes ensuring their safety around open water a daunting task. But the good news is that the basics of water safety fall into three manageable categories -- barriers, surveillance and education.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends -- and some local and state laws require -- that swimming pools be enclosed by a four-sided fence at least 4 feet high, with self-closing and self-locking gates with alarms. When swim time is over, doors facing the pool should remain locked. Let kids swim only in pools with clear water with good visibility, particularly near the dangerous area of the pool drain. At the ocean or a lake, set non-negotiable boundaries for where children can range. This includes not only water depth, but the width of the play area. That lets you create a manageable zone to watch them. An adult who can swim should always stay within arm’s length of any child with poor swim skills.
Vigilant surveillance is crucial. Even in areas with lifeguards, a designated adult should continually monitor kids in the water. No cellphones, no chatting, no daydreaming. As any parent whose child has gotten into trouble in the water can attest, the unthinkable happens in mere seconds. If you’re with other capable adults, break surveillance into shifts. When alone, give kids timed swim sessions. Regularly bring them onto dry land for snacks and sunscreen, and everyone gets a needed rest. Restate the physical limits of their play area each time they return to the water. If someone breaks the rules, the penalty is a non-negotiable return to dry land.
Education includes swimming and water competency lessons, which can begin as early as age 1. Learning CPR makes everyone safer. Studies show that kids as young as 9 can learn and use this vital skill. And learn the signs of drowning, which is actually a quiet event. Speech is secondary to breathing, and a drowning person may only have the ability to gasp for breath and try to stay afloat, and thus can’t cry for help. For information on water safety, visit poolsafely.gov.
(Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)