My kids are very much opposites, but there’s at least one thing they have in common: a love for water. And they aren’t alone in that.
Water is fascinating for kids. It’s mysterious and shiny and makes an excellent mess, whether it’s in an ocean, pool, bathtub, or sink. They can’t resist themselves when there’s a body of water around, and that exact reason makes me extra nervous as a parent.
Kids don’t often have the utmost control over their impulses, so as their caretakers, it’s on us to be extra vigilant. And the truth is, even knowing how to swim can’t always protect a child around water—in fact, sometimes it lends both the child and parent a false sense of security.
In this regard, we can never be too careful, especially in the summer. Oceans are unpredictable and pools are often chaotic. In fact, the majority of kids drown because their parents look away briefly or because they’re not even aware that their kids are near the water. Children are impulsive and fast, and that can be a worrisome thing sometimes.
So, what can we do? What do we need to know about keeping our kids safe? We talked to a few experts to get more insight on water safety.
How can you keep your kids safe at the pool?
Zack Zarrilli, a firefighter and owner of SureFire CPR, has a great tip for keeping kids safe around water: “Always designate someone as a ‘water watcher.'” That means the only job that they have is to watch the kids in the pool, he noted. No phones, books, or alcohol are allowed.
Dr. Joe Perno, MD, MBA, Interim Vice President of Medical Affairs at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, agreed. “All too often, there are several adults around, but no one is dedicated to watching the children. When there are multiple adults, everyone assumes someone else is watching.” This is extremely problematic.
Children can drown in a matter of seconds, and the occurrence can be unlike what you see in the movies, Zarrilli said. “One common misconception is that you would hear the child screaming, coughing, or struggling, and that is not the case,” he said, “It is very often that children drown without a sound.”
The pool area needs a fence around it as well, Zarrilli emphasized, and it’s very important to make sure that exterior house doors stay closed at all times so children don’t accidentally wander outside and fall in the pool. “Toddlers are curious and pools are a natural attraction for them,” Dr. Perno added.
Water safety issues typically stem not from a lack of good parenting but from momentary lapses in the inevitable but colorful chaos of everyday life when curious young children navigate toward a water source or when a temporary interruption brings the caregiver’s attention elsewhere.
How can you keep your kids safe at the beach?
“The beach is very similar to the pool,” Zarrilli said. “Always designate a water watcher and be aware of waves and currents that can pull kids under the water.” Proper swimwear is also a must so that kids are not weighed down by sand in their pockets or clothes that absorb too much water and become very heavy, he added. “And it’s always a good idea to set up as close to a lifeguard tower as possible, just in case.” Minutes matter when drowning, and CPR must be done as soon as possible.
As an adult, you should be aware of the body of water you’re around. Ask yourself questions like, how quick is the drop-off into deeper water? Are the branches or other hidden hazards under the water? How deep is the water children are jumping or diving into? Is there an undertow or cross-currents that need to be considered? Is the beach littered with jellyfish, or are there dangerous jellyfish in the waters?
Always check for signs posted at beach entries regarding currents and tides, and pay attention to lifeguard whistles and instructions.
What are possible signs of distress or danger parents should look for?
“Exhaustion, coughing, and heavy breathing are signs to look out for, but it is very common for children to not make any sound when in a life-threatening situation,” Zarrilli said.
Look for bobbing near the surface—usually you’ll see weak treading and a vertical body when someone is struggling to stay afloat.
“After a potential near-drowning episode, there are several things parents should watch for,” Dr. Perno said. “The most common thing parents may notice is rapid breathing or struggling with breathing. The child may be breathing like they are running a race despite just sitting quietly.” Sometimes there may be persistent coughing, but usually that resolves quickly after the episode. They may also be excessively sleepy. If any of these symptoms develop after a near-drowning episode, they should be seen in the ER.
Parents often hear about dry drowning or secondary drowning in online articles—what should we know about these conditions?
Dry drowning is when the vocal cords spasm and do not allow air to enter the lungs, Zarrilli noted. “This can be confused with secondary drowning, where a child inhaled water into the lungs and then later the lungs swell and cause difficulty breathing or worse.” This can happen up to three days after a close call in the water.
If you notice difficulty breathing, lethargy, choking, or other signs of distress after a water incident, call 911 immediately.
What is the most important thing parents should teach their kids about water safety?
Parents should make sure that their children are properly prepared, Zarrilli emphasized. “This means swimming lessons and also teaching kids how to play around the pool,” he said. Running around the pool (which can lead to unintentionally falling into the pool or hitting their head) and rough horseplay in the water should not be allowed.
“Parents should teach young children never to go near a pool unless they are with an adult. Never swim alone is a cardinal rule for everyone, child or adult,” added Dr. Perno. If children are boating, they should be instructed to always wear a life jacket. Be sure to check local laws as some areas require kids to wear life jackets with the heads-up design up to a certain age.
It is the parent’s job to prevent drownings by being observant, putting up pool fences, and utilizing things such as door alarms, he said. Parents need to be especially hypervigilant throughout the summer months.
Zarrilli also noted that, as parents, we’re most likely going to be the first responder in an emergency. Typically, Emergency Medical Services can be 5-10 minutes away in urban areas and much farther in rural areas. “Learning CPR and First Aid is critical,” he noted, “For every minute that a child is unconscious and not breathing, they have a 10% less chance of survival.”
Take a CPR and First Aid class, as it’ll make you more confident in handling an emergency and so you can enjoy a great day near the water with your family.