Water safety for young children: Tips for the pool or beach

Whether it’s a pool, the ocean, or a river, water safety is important, especially for babies and young children.  Follow these tips to ensure your water play stays fun. Photo: Andrew Eick

Silver Spring, Md, June 21, 2012 – Summer means hot weather and fun outdoors. It also usually means fun in the water. Whether it’s a pool, the ocean, or a river, water safety is important, especially for babies and young children.  Follow these tips to ensure your water play stays fun.

Never leave a child unsupervised

Children should never be left unsupervised in the water, especially very young children.  It only takes a few inches of water to drown, so don’t think that your toddler will be fine alone in the baby pool. Accidents happen, children can fall and hit their head, infants can lose their balance and go under, or even crawl into a slightly deeper section of a sloped wading pool while chasing a toy.

In its Drowning Prevention Fact Sheet, Safekids.org states that since 1999, an average of 745 children under the age of 14 drown every year, with children under the age of 5 representing 76% of all deaths. Further, in 2009 more than 5000 children under the age of 14 suffered non-fatal near-drowning injuries. Children under 5 made up 80% of this number.

These numbers are startling and should be a call to vigilance for parents, especially those who own pools at home.  Safekids.org goes on to say 72% of deaths and 55% of injuries occur at home pools under the age of 5, while 45% of fatalities in the older age bracket (5 to 14) occur at public facilites.  Even inflatable pools are not exempt. In just those few inches of water there were 244 reported submersion cases between 2001 and 2009 in children under age 11.

Don’t count on the lifeguards to babysit

While public pools and beaches may employ lifeguards, don’t count on them as the sole supervisor of your children. They are there to help make the swimming area as safe an environment as possible for everyone. That means they are watching not just your children, but you, your friends, your friends’ children, and every other swimmer. That’s a lot of people.

Lifeguards are there to ensure everyone’s safety, not act as babysitters. Photo by dbking.

Also, not every facility is as crowded as others, lifeguard experience and training may vary, and there may be other external factors that need to be taken into account. Lakes and oceans have murky water compared to a swimming pool. If someone goes under the surface there, it can be harder for a lifeguard to notice . Oceans have powerful rip currents, also known as undertow, that can pull young children out fast.  These currents can also pull adults out into dangerous depth.

Life guards do an amazing job every year of reducing the number of drowning fatalities all across the country, but they are not paid to be babysitters.  They are responsible for the safety of everyone. So, watch your children and if you need help or assistance the lifeguard is there to pull your child to safety. And if you can’t prevent a swimming accident from occurring, it’s better for you to notice a need for assistance early before the situation becomes too dire.  

Be aware of water depths

Water depth is something that many people take for granted. Sure most public pools have nice little tile numbers clearly identifying how many feet of water there is, but what does that mean really? And what about those other places: private pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans? If your child is not a swimmer, and most young children are not, it is especially important you are aware of water depth.  While a few inches is all that is needed to drown, jumping into “the deep end” is a sure-fire recipe for a struggle.

Just a few inches of water can be a drowning hazard. Never leave young children unattended near water. Photo by Hamner_Fotos.

Three feet may not seem all that deep to you, but to your 38 inch tall child it’s beyond tippy-toe depth. Be aware of how the water depths change at your pool.  Some pools have distinct steps that quickly change the depth, other gradually slope deeper and deeper between to depth markers.  These sloping pools make it easy for children to find themselves suddenly in deeper waters than they can handle.

The same is true of lakes and the ocean floor.  Both can either gradually slope or suddenly drop off.  Since the bottom can be hard to see in these environments, these depth changes can be extremely dangerous. Be aware of any depth markers or swim lane markers placed at lakes and beaches.  If possible, make the trip into the water first so that you can determine any potential dangerous depth changes, and give you children clear boundary markers as to how far into the water they are allowed to go.

Practice diving safety

As soon as children are able to walk and jump, they want to jump into the water.  Cannon balls are a favorite splash maker, and boasting rights come with biggest splash or the number of people they got wet. After kids learn start jumping in the water, some move onto wanting to dive in.  Diving can cause serious injuries if done at the wrong depth.  A 2008 WebMD News article says that in the US there are over 6500 injuries on average treated in emergency rooms every year due to diving accidents.

Diving in too shallow water can result in a wide range of injuries, from minor scraps from grazing the bottom of a pool to serious neck and spine injuries from hitting one’s head too hard on the bottom.  Many of these injuries come from diving in water of unknown depth where the bottom cannot be seen. Even if you know the water is 6 feet deep, if you can’t see the bottom, you don’t know if there are submerged objects that can pose serious injury risk.

Other diving injuries come from trying trick dives like handstands, flips and backwards dives. Some pools prohibit these trick drives. If your pool does allow them, find out what the rules are. Also, don’t let you children try backwards dives off the side of the pool.  The backwards motion tends to continue after in the water, which can cause head collisions with pool walls.  Similarly, attempting handstands on the edge of the pool pose risk from injury from falling due to lose of balance.   If these risky dives are to be attempted, it’s best to try them off a low diving board and, if possible, under the supervision of a diving coach,

Don’t forget the sunscreen

Lastly, don’t forget to lather up before you hit the water. Sunburn on the first day of a vacation can make the rest of the trip miserable, not to mention potentially cause health problems in the future. It takes sunscreen about 20 minutes to absorb into the skin. Make sure you take the bottle with you as well. 

While the label may say “waterproof,” no sunscreen is truly water proof, and should be reapplied after swimming or every 2 hours. 


Follow Brighid on Twitter at @BrighidMoret and receive updates when new columns post on Facebook. Read more about first time parenting issues in Parenting the First Time Through at The Communities at The Washington Times.



This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer and first time mother.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University.  Find her on Facebook @Brighid Moret


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