Pools, lakes, ponds, and beaches mean summer fun and cool relief
from hot weather. But water also can be dangerous for kids if you
don't take the proper precautions. Nearly 1,000 kids die each
year by drowning. And most drownings occur in home swimming
The good news is there are many ways to keep your kids safe in
the water and make sure that they take the right precautions when
they're on their own.
Keeping Kids Safe
Kids need constant supervision around water - whether the water
is in a bathtub, a wading pool, an ornamental fish pond, a swimming
pool, a spa, the beach, or a lake.
Young children are especially vulnerable - they can drown in
less than 2 inches (6 centimeters) of water. That means drowning
can happen where you'd least expect it - the sink, the toilet
bowl, fountains, buckets, inflatable pools, or small bodies of
standing water around your home, such as ditches filled with rain
water. Always watch children closely when they're in or near
It's a good idea to learn to swim, and kids older than 4
years should learn to swim, too (check the local recreation center
for classes taught by qualified instructors). Don't assume,
however, that a child who knows how to swim isn't at risk for
drowning. It's important to supervise kids while they're in
the water, no matter what their swimming skill levels.
Invest in proper-fitting, Coast Guard-approved flotation devices
(life vests) and use them whenever a child is near water. Check the
weight and size recommendations on the label, then have your child
try it on to make sure it fits snugly. For kids younger than 5
years old, choose a vest with a strap between the legs and head
support - the collar will keep the child's head up and face out
of the water. Inflatable vests and arm devices such as water wings
are not effective protection against drowning.
At Home and at the Pool
Water safety precautions start in the home.
The bathroom is full of dangers for youngsters. Never leave a
young child unattended in the bathroom, especially while bathing -
even if the child appears to be well propped in a safety tub or
bath ring. Put away all hair dryers and other electrical appliances
to avoid the risk of electrocution.
Hot water can also be dangerous, particularly for kids who are
younger than the age of 5. Young children have thinner skin than
older kids and adults, which means they burn more easily. Just 3
seconds of exposure to hot tap water that's 140Âº Fahrenheit
(60Âº Celsius) can give a child a third-degree burn.
You can reduce the risk of scalding by turning the water heater
thermostat in your home down to 120Âº Fahrenheit (49Âº Celsius) and
by always testing the water with your wrist or elbow before placing
your child in the bath.
Outside the home, your awareness can go a long way in preventing
accidents. Find out where the water hazards in your neighborhood
are. Who has a pool or water spa? Where are the retaining ponds or
creeks that may attract kids? Make neighbors who have pools aware
that you have a young child and ask them to keep their gates
Having a Pool at Home
Having a pool, pond, spa, or hot tub on your property is a
tremendous responsibility when it comes to safety issues.
Hot tubs may feel great to adults, but kids can become
dangerously overheated in them and can even drown - so it's
best not to let them use them at all. Having a fence (one that goes
directly around the pool or spa) between the water and your house
is the best safety investment you can make. This could go a long
way toward preventing pool-related drownings.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC),
fences should meet the following rules:
- Fences should stand at least 4 feet (130 centimeters) high
with no foot or handrails for kids to climb on.
- The slats should be less than 4 inches (110 millimeters)
apart so a child can't get through, or if chain link, should
have no opening larger than 13/4 inches (50 millimeters).
- Gates should be self-closing and self-latching, and the latch
should be out of kids' reach.
You can buy other devices, such as pool covers and alarms, but
the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that they have not
proved effective against drowning for very young children. The AAP
strongly supports fencing as the best measure of protection.
Making Kids Water Wise
It's important to teach your kids proper pool and spa
behavior, and to make sure that you take the right precautions,
Kids shouldn't run or push around the pool and should never
dive in areas that are not marked for diving. If the weather turns
bad (especially if there's lightning), they should get out of
the pool immediately. Let them know, too, that they should contact
the lifeguard or an adult if there's an emergency.
Above all, supervise your kids at all times. Don't assume
that just because your child took swimming lessons or is using a
flotation device such as an inner tube or inflatable raft that
there is no drowning risk. If you're at a party, it's
especially easy to become distracted, so designate an adult who
will be responsible for watching the children. If you leave your
child with a babysitter, make sure he or she knows your rules for
Seconds count when it comes to water emergencies, so take a
cordless phone with you when you're watching kids during water
play. A quick-dial feature keyed to 911 or your local emergency
center will also save additional seconds. If you receive a call
while supervising kids, keep your conversation brief to prevent
Once you've installed all your safety equipment, review your
home for water hazards and plan what to do in an emergency. Learn
(other caregivers should learn it, too) and make sure you have
safety equipment, such as emergency flotation devices, that are in
good shape and are close at hand when boating or swimming. Post
emergency numbers on all phones and make sure all caregivers are
aware of their locations. After your kids are finished playing in
the pool for the day, be sure to remove all pool toys and put them
away. Children have drowned while trying to retrieve playthings
left in the pool.
You should still be concerned about water safety, even after the
swim season has passed. Pools with covers are not safe; many kids
attempt to walk on top of pools during the winter months and may
get trapped underneath a pool cover.
In addition, icy pools, ponds, and streams are tempting play
areas for kids, so keep your pool gates locked and teach your child
to stay away from water without your supervision. If you have an
above-ground pool, it's wise to always lock or remove the
ladder when the pool is not in use.
At Lakes, Ponds, or Beaches
First, teach kids never to swim alone. Using the buddy system
means there's always someone looking out for you. Make sure
your kids understand that swimming in a pool is different from
swimming in a lake or the ocean - there are different hazards for
Here are some tips:
At the Lake or Pond
- Don't let kids swim without adult supervision - lakes or
ponds may be shallow near the bank and then increase in depth
sharply further out from shore.
- Ponds and lakes may hide jagged rocks, broken glass, or
- Make sure kids wear foot protection; even in the water, they
should wear aqua socks or water shoes.
- Watch out for weeds and grass that could entangle a leg or
- Most boating accidents, particularly among teenagers, are
related to alcohol. When you and your family are boating, assign
a designated driver who won't drink. Be sure teens know about
the dangers of alcohol, on and off the water.
At the Beach
Teach kids to always swim when and where a lifeguard is on duty.
They shouldn't swim close to piers or pilings because sudden
water movements may cause swimmers to collide with them.
- Unlike the calm waters of a swimming pool, the beach has
special dangers like currents and tides. Check with the lifeguard
when you arrive to find out about the water conditions.
- Don't allow kids to swim in large waves or undertows, and
tell them never to stand with their back to the water because a
sudden wave can easily knock a child over.
- Teach kids that if they're caught in a rip current or
undertow, they should swim parallel to the shore or should tread
water and call for a lifeguard's help.
- The stings of jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-wars can be
painful, so tell kids to avoid them in the water and to tell an
adult right away if they're stung.
Whether at the lake or at the beach, teach your child to get out
of the water during bad weather, especially lightning.
Water Park Safety
Water parks can be a lot of fun for kids, as long as you keep
safety in mind. Before you go, make sure the park is monitored by
qualified lifeguards. Once there, read all posted signs before
letting your child on any rides (many rides have age, height,
weight, or health requirements).
Teach your kids to follow all rules and directions, such as
walking instead of running and always going down the water slide in
the right position - feet first and face up. A Coast-Guard approved
life jacket is a good idea, too.
Know which rides are appropriate for your child's age and
development. For example, wave pools can quickly go from calm to
rough, putting even a good swimmer in over his or her head. Younger
children can be intimidated by older kids' splashing and
What to Do in an Emergency
Whenever a child is missing, always check the pool first.
Survival depends on a quick rescue and restarting breathing as soon
If you find a child in the water, immediately get the child out
while calling loudly for help. If someone else is available, have
them call 911. Check to ensure the child's air passages are
clear. If the child is not breathing, immediately start CPR as
Do five cycles of rescue breathing and chest compressions, which
takes about 2 minutes. If the child is still not breathing, dial
911 to get help if someone hasn't already called. Continue
If the child does start breathing, lie the child on his or her
side. (This helps keep the airway open and allows fluids to drain
so that the child doesn't choke.) Also, dial the emergency
number and follow any instructions that the emergency operators
If you think the child may have suffered a neck injury, such as
with diving, then keep the child on his or her back and brace the
neck and shoulders with your hands and forearms, until emergency
help arrives. Don't let the child move. Speak in calm tones to
keep the child comforted. Continue to watch for adequate
Water Safety Tips for Babies
Drowning, although the biggest worry, isn't the only concern
when babies are exposed to water. Infants are particularly
susceptible to diseases that can be transmitted in water. After
introducing an infant to a pool, dry the child's ears carefully
with a towel or cotton ball to help prevent
(an ear infection that occurs as the result of trapped water in the
ear canal). After a dip, wash your baby with a mild soap and
shampoo the hair to remove pool chemicals.
Water temperatures below 85Âº Fahrenheit (29Âº Celsius) can cause
babies to lose heat quickly, putting them at risk for hypothermia
(when body temperature falls below normal). Shivering infants or
those whose lips are turning blue should be removed from the water
immediately, dried, and kept in a towel.
Infants can also spread disease in a pool. The parasite
, which normally lives in the gastrointestinal tract and is found
in feces, can be released into pools by babies with leaky diapers.
When swallowed by other swimmers, the parasite can cause severe
diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and dehydration.
The safest thing to do is to keep your baby out of public pools
until the child is
. If you do decide to take the baby in for a dip, use waterproof
diapers only and change the diapers frequently (but not poolside!),
washing your child well each time. Keep any child with diarrhea or
a gastrointestinal illness out of the pool during the illness and
for 2 weeks afterward. Provide frequent bathroom breaks for kids
who are already toilet taught.
Water play can be a great source of fun and exercise. You'll
enjoy the water experience more by knowing and practicing these
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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