We’ve all heard horrible stories about accidental drownings and small children. While it’s hard to fathom ever winding up in the same situation, the truth is that accidental drownings occur more frequently than expected and happen to the most attentive of parents. Every household needs to discuss securing present water hazards and equipping little ones with the proper skills and tools to survive a life-threatening water situation. Let’s start with the facts …
What are the risks?
According to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), an unsettling 3,500-4,000 drowning deaths occur in the U.S. each year (approximately 10 fatalities per day, not including boating-related drownings). It is the leading cause of unintentional injury related death for children ages 1-4, affecting more males and African Americans disproportionately. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries.
Drowning is fast and silent, happening in as little as 20-60 seconds, and it often doesn’t look like what you would expect in an environment that seems safe. A reported 23 percent of child drownings happen during a family gathering near a home swimming pool, but hot tubs, ponds, bathtubs, or any other body of standing water present a risk of drowning. A young child can drown in a mere 6 centimeters of shallow water, making water safety absolutely essential year-round.
What preventative measures should parents take?
1| Don’t wait to sign your baby up for swimming lessons.
Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic was what’s been called a “drowning epidemic” nationwide as instructional pools closed and more American families installed backyard pools at a record rate, equaling a deadly combination.
Jessica Box, founder of drowning prevention education resource One Baby at a Time Foundation, explains, “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children are enrolled in high-quality swim lessons by the age of 1, and there are statistics that show they work.” She notes that the AAP also differentiates between “formal” and “high-quality” lessons, emphasizing that not all swim instruction is equivalent and goes on to describe her teaching model.
“We offer high-quality swim lessons here at SoCal Survival Swimming, and children can begin as young as 6 months old. We teach them to survive in the water with the swim-float-swim method, which even at the age of 6 months gives them the power to survive in the water, establish good habits and a positive relationship with the water, and also learn basic water safety skills.”
What’s more, The National Institute of Health found that expert swim lessons decrease the risk of drowning in children by 88 percent! It should go without saying that while facilities admirably adopted online resources to continue teaching swim lessons during the pandemic, real adaptations to swim safety should be left to in-person professionals.
That’s not to say that swim schools aren’t COVID-cautious. For example, the British Swim School franchise is taking ample protocols to prioritize the safety of its student swimmers while offering life-saving skills. These include:
It’s also important to note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through recreational water, and regular disinfection of pool facilities with chlorine and bromine will normally deactivate the virus. So, while it’s certainly understandable to want to remain vigilant with your family’s health, try to remember the long term benefits of swim lessons while also weighing safety options.
2| Safeguard your home pool.
In the same way you wouldn’t let your child in the pool without appropriate protection like a life jacket or flotation device, don’t allow your family to spend time around a pool that’s not properly secured.
Pool fences and alarms add layers of safety by preventing accidental access to your home pool. Pool alarms come in various forms from underwater motion detectors to wearable devices to fence alarms. (Some are even Bluetooth-based!)
Pool gates require additional maintenance but are well worth the time and effort to ensure an effective barrier to water. Faulty fences and gates can happen, so it’s important to regularly monitor the foundation and latch. The NDPA established a Check Your Pool Gate Month for this very reason and encourage this routine safety checklist for pool gates:
Gates should open outwards and away from the pool
Height of latch release mechanism should be at least 54 inches from the bottom of the gate (check local codes)
Gate must be self-closing and self-latching
Hinges should be rust-free and bind-free
Hinges should be reliable and tension-adjustable for closing speed
Gate latch must be adjustable horizontally and vertically to accommodate gate movement
Gate will latch when latch is in the locked or unlocked position
Latch cannot be disengaged using implements (e.g. garden or pool tools)
Latch cannot be shaken or jolted open
Gate will shut and latch securely from any open angle or force
Gate complies with all applicable standards, codes and legislation for pool safety
3| Assign an adult “Water Watcher” at all times.
Adult supervision at a pool is a no-brainer, but not all pools have lifeguards and not all adults are fully prepared for the responsibility of keeping eyes on the kiddos during neighborhood barbecues. Having a designated Water Watcher makes certain that someone is watching for drowning at all times.
Water Watchers should be void of all distractions, meaning no cell phone, friendly chit-chat or alcoholic beverages. (Feel free to utilize an official Water Watcher Safety Badge that lets everyone know at your gathering who is on watch duty, so there won’t be any temptation to engage and distract.) It’s one of the best ways to prevent a child going underwater without someone noticing and taking immediate action. Water Watchers can also practice touch supervision when applicable and keep baby at an arm’s length when in the pool.
What about dry drowning?
Chances are you’ve seen a post or two (or 20) about children and dry drowning, a scary scenario in which a child seems perfectly fine after a day at the pool but starts struggling to breathe a few hours later. Also referred to as secondary drowning, or submersion injuries as a whole by medical professionals, these terms are used interchangeably but have different meanings.
Dry drowning: This refers to a person’s airway suddenly closing up as the result of a spasm caused by taking in a small amount of water. Symptoms are not delayed and usually happen soon after exiting the water.
Secondary drowning: This happens when water effectively gets into the lungs and causes inflammation or swelling. Difficulty in transferring oxygen to carbon dioxide (or vice versa) can lead to respiratory distress that can take up to 24 hours before showing signs that something is wrong.
Box points out that the phrase “dry drowning” is not even a real medical term and can quickly freak parents out without explaining what actually happens.
“Drowning requires water, so that concept is a myth. The scary headlines do spring from a real (rare) situation though, in which a person is struggling under the water and unable to come up for air. In some cases, a child could inhale the water before the airways clamp shut which could lead to lung damage and breathing problems 6 to 12 hours later. If your child is ever in the situation where they struggled under water and weren’t breathing, they should receive immediate medical attention.”