5 things you can do to reduce your child’s drowning risk
Watching news these days makes it seem that the world is a dangerous place to keep children safe. The most dangerous risks are often more mundane than a pandemic or war. Drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages one to four, and the second for ages one to 14. And even when kids are able to survive this type of incident, non-fatal drowning accidents usually result in severe neurological damage and long-term disability.
Many parents have heard the same advice over and over again: When your children are near water, keep an eye on them, drink no, and keep your phone away from them. These recommendations are not enough, according to statistics.
” We notice bright things. We are attracted to loud things. We notice things that move a lot,” says Graham Snyder, an emergency physician at Wake Med, who has specialized in drowning prevention for 15 years. “We don’t notice things that seem quiet, that are still or that are dark. And unfortunately, that’s what drowning is .”
Parents are looking for new strategies to reduce drowning risk in their children. These strategies go beyond the traditional recommendations and do not replace high-quality supervision of adults.
Mind the drop-off
Imagine a child getting confused after falling into a deep pool or lake. Although it can happen, the 3 to 5 foot zone is far safer.
” Most drownings occur in water just above [children’s] the head. It’s actually not even the deep end,” says Erika Kemp, a pediatric occupational therapist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center specializing in drowning prevention for children with special needs.
This is especially true if younguns aren’t able to notice the difference when they move from the shallow end to deeper water. They think they can go an extra step, but then lose their balance and end-up bobbing vertically, almost touching the bottom.
If you can, take your children by the hand and show them the drop-off area. Or, park your chair near the limit so they can refer to you as a landmark. This will help them to understand where they are safe and where they need extra caution.
Kemp also advises parents to stop horseplay. This can cause children to become disoriented in areas they can’t touch, or almost touch.
Get bright-colored swimsuits
Because they have dark bottoms and are more dangerous than pools with clear water, beaches, ponds and lakes are much more dangerous than those with clear water. These bodies of brown water are harder to see, so adults will spend precious seconds trying and find drowning children before they can move to help them. And that’s not trivial–the amount of time a child spends underwater can make the difference between a simple scare and a more dramatic and permanent outcome.
Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, suggests you put your kids in bright-colored bathing suits to make them easier to spot in brown water settings. In 2021, Alive Solutions, a company specializing in aquatic safety, tested swimsuits in different colors against 18 inches of lake water to see which are easiest to spot for a quick rescue. All hues vanished quickly, and factors such as weather, surface activity, and the color and bottom of the river or lake affected visibility. It is impossible to have a swimsuit that suits every situation. However, it is highly visible and best to use bright colors such as neon yellow, neon green and neon orange in most situations. Kemp suggests that you dress multiple children in the same color to make it easier to spot them.
If your children are wearing unclothed tops, bright-colored rashguards can be very useful, especially if water is covering their bottom. Bright colors can help children spot help easier when they need it. Kemp suggests that parents should tell their children what color the lifeguards are wearing, so they know who to listen to and look for.
” When everyone thinks someone else is watching, no one is actually watching. He explains that this is called diffusion of responsibility. “But if you say ‘Ted’, you’re in control of the pool’ then it’s much safer.”
This is especially important between 4: 00 p.m. and 6: 00 p.m. on weekends when research shows adults get more distracted. Adults can also drift when they talk to one another, so lifeguards should be dedicated to their job. It is a good idea to take short shifts in order to avoid one adult being stuck talking to the children all day.
To determine if a child is drowning, Fisher & Kemp advise that adults not pay attention to specific movements as they can appear just like playing underwater. Snyder suggests that you look at the eyes of a child, as a drowning child’s eyes will clearly indicate distress. If you are unable to read their expressions or can’t make eye contact, it is a sign that they are in trouble.
Your kid most likely needs a life jacket–even when they say they don’t
Although you might think life jackets only for boating are useful, they can also be used to prevent drowning in other bodies of water.
Any accident in an aquatic environment can slow down someone’s ability get to safety. This is even if they are good swimmers under normal circumstances. Snyder recommends that children wear well-fitting life jackets when swimming in brown water.
” They shouldn’t be in water without a lifejacket unless they can confidently state that they are an excellent swimmer,” he said.
A hypothetical test he uses is to determine if a child is prepared to swim without a life jacket. Don’t let them have any tantrums, and get a life vest on.
Teach kids to alert an adult in case of trouble
Many accidents occur when a child jumps in the water to help a sibling or friend who is drowning. Only to be pulled under their own weight.
Kemp recommends that parents explicitly teach children to alert adults in an emergency, rather than having them attempt their own rescue mission.
Older children may be taught to assist in drowning situations by using a foam noodle to reach the edge of a body or water and pull the person to safety. Kemp teaches this method to her students.
” If [kids] is in the act or drowning, they often can see something coming at their feet,” she said.
This can help a drowning victim to get some relief and even give them enough time to get back on their feet and help with their rescue.
Kids can be unpredictable. This is why it is important to pay close attention and avoid ruining a wonderful summer. Adults can learn some strategic tips to help them focus on the positive and not worry about potential disasters.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.