There are two parts to water safety. Learning to swim and becoming informed.
LEARNING TO SWIM
Many parents feel that learning to swim is an important life skill. I agree. So here are a few useful tips for that endeavor. True swimming is a skill that requires a certain level of physical coordination and brain maturity. As a result, kids cannot generally learn to actually swim until around 5 years of age. Prior to that you can work with your child on a variety of pre-swimming and water safety skills. I think one of the best places to start this is in the bathtub. If bath time is full of fun water play then this is the first step in getting a child comfortable with water. We started with paper straws. We showed them how to blow bubbles into the tub. Each day we cut the straw shorter until their face was quite close to the water. Then we showed them how to hold their nose and put their face in the water. Then we added blowing bubbles with their face in the water. We kept it all a game.
The tub is also a good place to introduce goggles. Realize that they will feel quite weird and perhaps tight on their face. You want your child to buy into wearing them from the beginning. One great way to do this is for the adults to simply start wearing them around the house one evening. Don’t say anything about them until your kids ASK about the strange things on your face. Tell them if they want to try them you’ll have to get some in their size later. Do this for a day or two until they REALLY want to try them. When you first put them on the kids, try just letting them hold them up to their eyes. Later you can get the strap over their heads. Then play, “look thru the water” in the tub or a very large bowl of water. Drop a car or plastic animal into the water for them to find. Add in blowing bubbles and you’ve brought your kids a long way into pre-swimming skills.
You’ll also want to get them comfortable with swimming pools. Community swimming pools, a friend’s pool, as well as gym and hotel pools can all give you a chance to expand you kids comfort and skills. Make sure your child has a good flotation device on and then just play while holding them. Be aware that “water wings” that are inflatable can pop and are not allowed in some pools. Life vests come in a range of sizes for little kids. I recommend a Coast Guard Certified vest over any water wing or chest floatation. Ask for help if you’re not sure of how the vest should fit. A rash-guard swim top can help prevent chafing under the arms. A water noodle or swim ring is not sufficient.
Some kids will be quite fearful of the pool. They recognize that it’s deep and that they are outside their skill range. They see danger and they are right. For these kids, you’ll want to go slow and start in shallow water. As kids realize that their life vest will keep them up and that you will stay with them then they will usually gain confidence and play. I encourage you to play this way as often as you can with your young child. Once the pool is fun and not scary then you can bring in the goggles and bubble blowing.
When they have the above skills, and are 3-4 years old you want to start working on 3 water safety skills. First, it’s important your child learns how to climb out of a pool without the steps. Take them to the side, let them pull themselves up, swing a leg over the side, and roll out of the pool onto the concrete. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make it into a game if need be.
Next, starting with the child wearing their life vest, you can practice “starfish” floating. Having them lie onto their back in the water can feel quite scary, so go slowly on this. You should stay right beside them with your hands underneath and gently pushing their bottom up towards the surface. Ultimately, you want to get them comfortable with floating on their back with their arms and legs spread out like a “starfish.”
Another important skill is “kangaroo hopping.” This is when the child pushes off the bottom with their feet to get to the surface for a breath. You can start this by jumping in a shallow kiddie pool and gradually move to deeper water as the child is older and more comfortable with their face underwater. You’ll need to be right there with them as they learn this. If they are frightened just stop for a while. Once your kid hits 5 years old you’ll find that most early swimming lessons focus on these water safety skills before moving onto actual swimming.
If you have neither the time nor the facilities to help your child with pool comfort then by all means sign them up for swimming lessons. Just be aware that before 5 years of age you child will gain many valuable pre-swimming and water safety skills but that actual swimming is not likely to occur until they are closer to 5-6 years old.
Once they do learn to swim, you’ll also want to make sure they keep learning until they are really good at it. You may need to do seasonal refreshers on floating, treading water, climbing out of the pool, kangaroo hops, etc.
Don’t forget…even good swimmers can drown. So, you still have more work to do to protect your child from drowning.
PROTECTING YOUR CHILD FROM DROWNING: PARENTAL SKILLS
Drowning is the second cause of accidental death for kids under 15 years of age. (Number one cause is car accidents.) If you want to protect you child from drowning then you have some parental skills to learn too. The first thing to remember is that crazy sh!t happens! Accidents occur because we fail to predict them. So, here’s the deal. Things are going to happen that you would never in a million years predict. Some of them will be dangerous.
I was recently swimming at a small lake. The day use area was full of families, and people of all ages were splashing around in floats and kayaks. I was standing in about 3 feet of water and looked up towards the shore. Right at the water’s edge in about 6 inches of water was a boy about 4 years old. He had a fairly large round float ring. It was about 3 feet in diameter. He had fallen forward, face first into the open circle in the ring. His face was underwater. He was kicking furiously trying to get out, but his arms were trapped outside the ring. He was drowning in 6 inches of water while surrounded by all these people and right at the shoreline! I raced towards him and just before I reached him he managed to roll and get out. He came up coughing and hacking with eyes wide in fear.
The boy’s grandfather had been putting gear back in the car, and left two older kids to watch him. They were playing nearby, but never realized what was happening. In fact, it did not appear that anyone other than I had seen that he was in trouble. He was just a kid with a float ring goofing at the edge of the water were no one would expect a 4 year old to drown. Crazy shit happens!
So, watch your kids, really WATCH them around water. Sitting nearby and looking at your cell phone does not count when your kids are young.
It’s also very important to realize that drowning does not look like what we expect from TV. Many people drown silently and often very close to other people who never recognize that they are drowning. If someone is waving and yelling for help then they are in “aquatic distress.” This is someone you can throw a float to and they can grab on to help save themselves.
Someone who is drowning will be caught in “the drowning reflex.” These people cannot help rescue themselves. If you throw them a life ring they can’t reach for it. They will be up-right in the water with head tilted back and mouth dipping above and below the water. They will be desperately trying to catch a breath and will not be able to make any sound before slipping back under water. They will be silent. Their arms will be out at their sides as they try to keep their head above water. Generally, they will manage this for 20-60 seconds before they go fully under. You could easily miss this while reading your email.
Please, please go to the link below and read this article about what drowning really looks like. It is truly eye opening and may save your child’s life.
Probably the most important water safety step for parents to take with their kids, is to require that they wear a proper Coast Guard Certified life vest in all open water. Even good swimmers drown in lakes every year. You can make it a basic requirement like a car seat, safety belt, or helmet. You get in the water, you put the life vest on. It will help a great deal if you model this behavior for your kids. If they don’t find the vest comfortable then look around for different types at water sports shops. Different styles exist for boating, kayaking, water skiing etc.. They will all work…if they are worn.
There are also many different water safety devices for families with pools. Some areas require either an automatic pool cover or 5′ non-climbable fencing around pools. Australia got serious about enforcing pool fencing codes and managed to dramatically reduce home pool drowning deaths. This one intervention, a 5 foot non-climbable fence that fully encloses the pool, can offer a great deal of protection to your kids.
But that fencing needs to fully enclose the pool. If it surrounds the pool on 3 sides, but attaches to the house for the 4thside then it’s no good for drowning protection. If a kid can walk out the back door and get to the pools edge then you haven’t protected them from drowning. This is the sad scenario in many home pool deaths. The child is in the home surrounded by caring adults but somehow manages to briefly slip away. Moments later the child is found at the bottom of the pool and can’t be revived.
Automatic pool covers can also offer a lot of protection…if you close them whenever an adult is not present and if the control is locked and not easily accessible to a child. Remember, kids do stupid stuff long after you’d think they had out grown such behavior.
Ponds, streams, rivers, and even shallow decorative water features outside a home or apartment can also be a very real drowning risk. I personally know of a case in which a young child walked out of an apartment and drown in a 3 foot deep decorative pond. The parents had been caring for a sick sibling. They were severely sleep deprived and never knew the other child had even gotten out of bed.
You can find sensors that strap to your kid’s ankle or wrist and will alarm if they are submerged. There are motion sensors that sit in a pool and alarm if the water is disturbed. You can also get sensors for your doors and windows that will alert you if they are opened. If you live near a dangerous stream or lake then door alarms may be very much worth it.
I recommend you carefully assess all nearby risks and work to reduce them. Remember while you’re planning, that even older good swimmers can drown. Teach your kids to never swim alone and don’t forget… that kids continue to take unexpected, impulsive risks long after you’d think they’d out grown such mistakes.
If your child has a NEAR drowning episode then be aware of a potentially life-threatening complication. Secondary drowning and a similar condition called dry drowning, can occur after a child has taken even small amounts of water into their upper airway or lungs. Symptoms can develop shortly after the event or can be delayed by 24-48 hours. In both cases a chain reaction of irritation causes the child’s lungs to fill with their own fluids. This can lead to severe respiratory distress and death. If your child has a near drowning event get them medically checked out. If they start coughing, wheezing, have fever, weakness, shortness of breath or generally are feeling poorly, don’t dismiss it, get them emergency care right away.
So, teach your kids to always wear a life vest in open water. (you too!) Learn the difference between aquatic distress and what drowning really looks and sounds like. (hint: it’s silent.) Pools need a five foot non-climbable fence that fully encloses the pool. Assess outdoor water risks such as ponds and streams and take steps. Consider door and window alarms if you have any water outside your home. Teach kids water safety skills such as kangaroo hopping, starfish floating, and how to climb out from the side of a pool. After your kids learn to swim, keep pushing them until they are good at floating, treading water, and swimming. Remember that kids do stupid stuff and that crazy sh!t happens. Post an adult to pool duty for all gatherings. Rotate the adult and don’t disturb them when on duty. Lock up that pool and make sure someone keeps an eye on it even after the party moves indoors. Watch kids when they are in the water. Really watch them. No computers. No phones. No reading.
Remember, No Parent is an Island!