Jun 9, 2022, 7:49:27 AM CDT Oct 10, 2023, 2:33:54 PM CDT

What a drowning prevention specialist wants parents to know

An expert shares smart tips to prevent water tragedies

Swimming instructor teaching little boy how to swim Swimming instructor teaching little boy how to swim

Have fun with your children at pools, lakes and beaches – boating, swimming or just playing in the sand! But whatever activity you choose, please don't take water safety for granted – not even for a minute.

Drownings happen quickly, sometimes in small amounts of water. And often, they occur when parents are in plain sight.

Jesus Alderete, Program Manager of Injury Prevention at Children's Health℠, has studied drownings in children for more than 10 years. Here are seven facts he wants all adults to know to keep children safe around the water.

7 childhood drowning facts

1. Drowning is a leading cause of death for children.

It's easy to think that drowning can't happen to you, but the statistics say otherwise. Drowning is a serious risk to children.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, drowning is the single leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4 after congenital conditions.

"When families lose a child to drowning, they are devastated," says Alderete. "And it happens far too often."

Teens are at high risk, too. About 370 children in the United States ages 10 to 19 die from drowning every year. Why? Doctors say teens are more likely to take risks, underestimate dangerous situations and drink alcohol while swimming.

2. Nonfatal drownings are devastating, too.

Not all drownings are fatal. Sometimes, the victim is rescued, survives and does well. Other times, recovery can be challenging.

"Some children suffer brain damage due to lack of oxygen during the drowning incident," says Alderete. "They suffer long-term or permanent disabilities. And that's devastating for families, too."

3. Children can drown quickly – within seconds.

"At the hospital, we often hear stunned parents say, 'I don't know what happened. I just turned around for a minute,'" says Alderete. "Unfortunately, the reality is that drowning happens faster than most people realize."

A child's lungs can fill with water in a matter of seconds. If the child cannot breathe, brain damage or death can occur within minutes.

To understand how quickly water emergencies happen, Alderete shares common examples: A baby's face can become submerged underwater in a bathtub in the time it takes to walk to the hall closet and get a towel. Or a child can slip and fall into a swimming pool in the time it takes to answer a call or post to social media. That is why constant supervision is important.

4. Drowning is silent – you might not hear a thing.

When you watch a drowning incident on TV or in the movies, you usually hear lots of splashing around and yelling for help. However, that's not the way it happens in real life.

"Drowning is a quick, silent event," says Alderete. "Often, when children (or adults) are drowning, they are not able to yell. They're struggling, maybe bobbing in and out of the water, trying to breathe. Sound doesn't come out."

5. Water does not have to be deep for drowning to occur.

"As little as an inch of water can be deadly, especially for infants and toddlers," says Alderete. "When young children are unattended and fall into a small amount of water, they might have trouble pulling up their heads."

Always keep your eyes on your child and stay within arm's reach around any amount of water. Drownings happen indoors and outdoors at any time of year. Be sure to drain water from all:

  • Bathtubs
  • Cleaning buckets
  • Kiddie pools
  • Swimming pool covers

6. Having more adults around does not lower the risk of drowning – in fact, it's often the opposite.

Did you know that 57% of drownings occur in backyard swimming pools, and 69% of child drownings happen when an adult is present? Sounds surprising, but it's true.

"Suppose you and your children are invited to a pool party. The adults often start talking and socializing, and the kids jump in the pool. Without discussing who is supervising, everyone may assume someone else is watching," says Alderete.

To help keep children safe at pool parties, create a group of water watchers:

  • Before the kids enter the pool, discuss which parents will watch the children in the water without interruption.
  • Agree that water watchers will not use cell phones or read books while on duty. (No alcohol for water watchers either.)
  • Make sure all water watchers know the swimming ability of each child in the pool.
  • Rotate water watchers every 15 minutes to keep a fresh set of eyes on the children. (The more water watchers on duty at a time, the better.)

See more tips for a safe pool party.

7. Realize not everyone will watch your child as you do.

Even when lifeguards are present, realize no one can watch your kids as closely as you can. Swimming pools and beaches are bustling with people and activity. Be your child's number one lifeguard. If your child has caregivers, ask them to follow all the same safety guidelines you do. Make sure grandparents know the rules too.

Smart strategies to prevent drownings

While the facts about childhood drownings are sobering, you can take steps to keep your children safe. Alderete reminds families of these water safety rules:

  • Require all non-swimmers and weak swimmers to wear a personal flotation device or life jacket that is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Make sure children put life jackets back on after eating and using the restroom.
  • Don't rely on water wings or other inflatables. They are not intended to be life-saving devices.
  • Stay within arm's reach of children who are non-swimmers, new swimmers or weak swimmers.
  • Require all children to ask your permission before entering the water. Just because you're at the pool or beach doesn't mean the kids can automatically get in. (When your child asks permission, it reminds you to put on their life jacket and start watching.)
  • Tell your children you are actively watching them play in the water. Give them the right to "call you out" if they see you've become distracted by the phone or are talking with someone.
  • Require your kids to take breaks. Swimming is fun but tiresome.
  • If you have access to water outside your home – such as a pool, pond or lake nearby – make sure all doors leading outside are locked and secure when your family is inside. Remember to lock doggie doors, too. This will prevent young children, and children with special needs such as autism, from wandering outside unnoticed.
  • Enroll your child in swim classes as early as possible. But don't leave them unattended even after lessons are complete. Even children who know how to swim can be at risk for drowning.
  • Don't allow horseplay or dunking. Teach kids water safety rules and make sure they understand the importance.

See more information about pool safety rules and additional strategies to prevent childhood drowning.

Learn more about water safety

The Children's Health Injury Prevention team is committed to keeping your family safe. Learn more about our water safety program, and see other ways to keep children safe and healthy during the summer.

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