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Water Safety

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 pools. It is the second leading cause of accidental death for people between the ages of 5 and 24.

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 rainwater. Always watch children closely when they're in or near any water.

If you don't already, it's a good idea to learn how to swim, and kids older than 4 years should learn, too (check the local recreation center for classes taught by qualified instructors). Kids who are younger (but older than age 1) also might benefit from swimming lessons, but check with your doctor first.

Don't assume that a child who knows how to swim isn't at risk for drowning. All kids need to be supervised in the water, no matter what their swimming skill levels. And infants, toddlers, and weak swimmers should have an adult swimmer within arm's reach to provide "touch supervision."

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.

Don't forget the sunscreen and reapply frequently, especially if the kids are getting wet. UV sunglasses, hats, and protective clothing can also help provide sun protection.

Kids should drink plenty of fluids, particularly water, to prevent dehydration. It's easy to get dehydrated in the sun, especially when kids are active and sweating. Dizziness, feeling lightheaded, or nausea are just some of the signs of dehydration and overheating.

The temperature of the water is important, too. Enter the water slowly and make sure it feels comfortable for you and your child. A temperature below 70°F (20°C) is cold to most swimmers. Recommended water temperatures vary depending on the activity, swimmer's age, and whether or not they are pregnant. In general, 82°-86°F (28°-30°C) is comfortable for recreational swimming for children (babies are more comfortable when the water is on the warmer side of this temperature range).

Body temperature drops more quickly in water than on land, and it does not take long for hypothermia to set in. If a child is shivering or experiencing muscle cramps, get him or her out of the water immediately.

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 younger than 5, who 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 140°F (60°C) 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 120°F (49°C) and by always testing the water with your wrist or elbow before placing your child in the bath.

Outside the home, being aware can help prevent 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? Tell neighbors who have pools that you have a young child and ask them to keep their gates locked.

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.

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 and will help prevent pool-related drownings.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), fences should meet these standards:

  • 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 1¾ 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 these haven't been proved effective against drowning for very young children, so fencing remains your 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, too. Let kids know that they should contact the lifeguard or an adult if there's an emergency.

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.

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's 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 the pool.

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 being distracted.

Once you've installed all your safety equipment, review your home for water hazards and plan what to do in an emergency. Learn CPR (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 kids 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 each.

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 trash.
  • 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 arm.
  • 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 them 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, and each has a different depth of water).

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 roughhousing.

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 as possible.

  • 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, CPR should be initiated as necessary. This is best done by someone who is trained in CPR. When the emergency number is called, follow the instructions the emergency operators provide.

  • 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 to help keep the neck immobilized, until emergency help arrives. This type of immobilization minimizes further injury to the spine and is best performed by someone who is trained in the technique. Don't let the child move. Speak in calm tones to keep the child comforted. Continue to watch for adequate breathing.

Recreational Water Illnesses

Recreational water illnesses happen due to contact with contaminated water from recreational water sources like a swimming pool, hot tub, water fountain, water park, lake, or ocean. It is usually spread by swallowing, inhaling or coming into contact with water that is contaminated with germs.

Most reported infections people get are diarrhea-related and often are due to the parasite Cryptosporidium, which normally lives in the gastrointestinal tract and is found in feces. Other infections can affect the skin, eyes, ears, and respiratory tract.

Kids, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system can be the most affected by these infections. Although chlorine treatment in water kills germs that cause these illnesses, it can take time depending on the type of germ.

A few tips to prevent getting a recreational water illness:

  • Kids with diarrhea should not swim.
  • Take kids on bathroom breaks often and change swim diapers often (not at the poolside).
  • If you are taking a baby in the water who is not potty-trained, use a swim diaper.
  • Wash hands after using the bathroom or changing diapers.
  • Avoid swallowing or getting water in your mouth.
  • Keep the swimming water clean by showering with soap before entering the pool.
  • After swimming, dry ears well with a towel/washcloth, tilting each ear down to help water drip out of the ear canal. This can help prevent swimmer’s ear (an ear infection due to trapped water in the ear canal).

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 swimmer's ear. After a dip, wash your baby with a mild soap and shampoo the hair to remove pool chemicals.

Water temperatures below 85°F (29°C) 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. Cryptosporidium 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 potty-trained. 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 potty-trained.

Water play can be a great source of fun and exercise. You'll enjoy the water experience more by knowing and practicing these safety precautions.

Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011