This article originally appeared in Abington-Jefferson Health’s Ideas for Healthy Living E-Newsletter.
Now that the kids are out of school and summer has officially kicked off, it’s time for families to enjoy everything summer has to offer: vacations, beach trips, and afternoons by the pool.
But as you lather your little one up in sunscreen and dance them through a cloud of insect repellent, don’t forget to protect your child from another major summer threat: water.
Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among children ages 14 and under and most commonly occurs during the summer months— and it’s mostly preventable. According to Dr. Steven Shapiro, Chair of Pediatrics Department at Abington-Jefferson Health, 84 percent of drowning deaths among children under five years old occurs at home pools, while 45 percent of fatalities among children between ages five and 14 occur at a public pool.
According to a national study of drowning incidents involving children, a parent or caregiver was said to be supervising the child in nine out of 10 drowning related deaths—so what’s happening?
There are two main reasons as to why so many water-related deaths and injuries occur among children: Parents aren’t properly watching their children and/or the kids don’t know how to stay safe in the water.
What Parents Should Know
When it comes to swim safety for children, Dr. Shapiro said it begins with careful preparation and observation.
“What I tell parents is this: If you’re putting children in the pool, there’s no question that an adult needs to watch the pool,” he said. “But this means you cannot do anything else; no drinking, no eating, nothing. You need to solely watch the pool.”
Unfortunately, the time it takes for a child to get into the pool is instant, and parents don’t have a lot of time to intervene if something goes awry; a child has only 20 to 60 seconds of struggling above water before going under the surface. But in addition to observing your child when he’s supposed to be in the water, you must also make sure the pool is safe for when you’re not there; every homeowner should enclose a pool with fencing and add a lock to the gate.
Additionally, parents must be aware that not all floating devices are safety devices.
“Floaties, pool noodles; kids are notoriously bad at handling them,” said Dr. Shapiro. “You cannot rely on anything but the proper life jackets they wear in pools or on boats.”
Another danger parents should consider is dehydration, since children who are in the water are at more risk for overexposure to the sun. In fact, the worst heat injuries occur around pools, so it’s vital that parents ensure their kids drink plenty of water and/or sports drinks.
While you should practice these swim safety tips near any body of water, there are extra precautions you should take if swimming in a lake as well.
According to Dr. Shapiro, parents should check with the local health department to ensure the water is free of contaminants that can potentially cause sickness in those who are exposed to it. Cryptosporidium, for example, is a microscopic parasite that causes gastrointestinal illnesses, such as diarrhea, in humans if the counts are high enough. In this case, you may want to skip the day at the lake.
Additionally, be sure your kids are wearing a pair of water shoes when going to the beach or lake to protect their feet from stones and shells.
If swimming at the beach, make sure there’s a lifeguard present and take note of any posted advisories, such as those for strong currents and rip tides.
What Kids Should Know
The other area of swim safety that is often overlooked is the need for kids to be able to protect themselves in the water.
If your child hasn’t learned about water safety, enroll him or her in a swim class.
“I’d also urge every parent to look into a Rescue Swimming program, which teaches children to safely rotate themselves into a relaxed water float position,” said Dr. Shapiro. It’s a great way for kids as young as six months to learn how to roll over and float on their backs if they were to ever fall into a body of water. Although the program isn’t cheap, it provides parents—and the child—with another level of confidence.
But it’s not only children who should take extra caution—adolescents and young adults need to know their limits as well. If vacationing and planning to go scuba diving, for example, Dr. Shapiro emphasized the need to either get certified before doing so, or opt for an alternative water activity, such as snorkeling. “Scuba breathing isn’t learned in 10 minutes, and you need to be fully qualified to do it.”
Identifying an Emergency and What to Do
Contrary to what you’ve seen in the movies, a drowning child is more difficult to identify in real life, as she won’t necessarily “look” like she’s drowning. (You may also want to get certified in CPR so you can take action in case of an emergency.) While you should educate yourself on the signs of drowning, key things to look for are:
- Mouth sinks below and reappears above the surface of the water
- Head tilted forward or back
- Eyes glossy or closed
- Arms extended to the sides or forward
- Cannot talk/ask for help
Immediately perform CPR (if certified) and/or call 9-1-1.