WATER SAFETY: Recognize and Avoid Drowning Incidents

As soon as daylight saving time begins and we enjoy more sunshine, many families eagerly anticipate their spring break and summer vacation. It’s never too early to plan for water safety, and some practices are crucial for babies and toddlers year-round. 

As awful as it is to consider, drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Swimming pools are especially dangerous, but bathtubs, kiddie pools, filled buckets or basins, fish ponds, and natural bodies of water all deserve extreme caution.

Many of us expect drowning to be theatrical with shouting and flapping arms, but it’s actually much more subtle. Signs of drowning include:

  • Body vertical
  • Head tilted up with mouth at water level
  • Hair over the forehead/face
  • Very quiet- not talking, shouting or waving
  • Ladder-climbing motion

“These quiet behaviors are an instinctive response,” says Dr. Kara Murphy Schmidt at One Pediatrics at Simpsonville. “Even children who know how to swim can become exhausted and struggle to stay afloat. Drowning happens quickly, and the lungs don’t have to completely fill with water for an incident to be dangerous or even fatal.”

If your child has a near-drowning experience, it’s best to halt water play for the day. “Dry-drowning” occurs when water causes a person’s vocal chords to spasm and close. “Delayed drowning” happens when a small amount of water is inhaled and irritates the airways. Children should be monitored for fatigue, respiratory distress, and coughing or congestion after any incident. 

Pools themselves should have a fence around them with a gate closed at all times. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pools be completely separate from the house, a fence at least four feet tall on all sides, and the gate latch at least 54 inches off the ground. Alarms that chirp when someone opens a door are also recommended in homes with pools. If your child is visiting a home with a pool, ensure that adults will be enforcing water safety and know life-saving procedures.

Enrolling kids in age-appropriate swimming lessons as soon as possible is strongly recommended. Kids who don’t know how to swim should wear a flotation device at all times near pools or other bodies of water, and make sure it’s approved for their weight. Novelty inflatables, especially inner tubes, can become dangerous if a child flips upside down so their head is in the water and they can’t swim out. The opening should be wide enough in diameter that the widest part of the user’s body can slip through. Supervise children closely as all times in pools, even if they have flotation devices and/or can swim.

In addition to pools, families should practice bath time safety. Babies can drown in just an inch or two of water, so keep hands on them at all times. Have your soap and towel nearby before they enter the water, and monitor toddlers at all times in the tub. Check water temperature with your wrist or elbow before bathing. Baby-proofing measures including toilet latches and doorknob covers can protect curious little ones from the bathroom as a whole.

Your pediatrician can recommend water safety measures, both in general and for your home’s particular features. Don’t hesitate to share concerns and maintain age-appropriate safety. 

*** If a child in your care becomes unconscious in water, remove them from the water immediately, call 911, and administer CPR.