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Get Into the Swim This Summer—Safely

As we jump into summer, safety experts warn to take precautions before diving into the water, whether it’s a backyard pool or open waters such as a lake, river, pond, or ocean.

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1 to 4 years old—more than 60 percent of fatal drownings of children under the age of 4 occur in swimming pools—and the second leading cause of unintentional death in children ages 5 to 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Touch supervision” is one of the best ways to prevent drowning in the very young, according to Jay Greenspan, MD, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Jefferson. “Supervisors of preschool children should be close enough to reach the child at all times,” he says. In addition, adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity—such as reading, playing cards, talking on the phone, or mowing the lawn—while supervising children.

The American Red Cross suggests these safety tips to help prevent a tragedy in a backyard pool or hot tub:

  • Leave no child unattended: Always watch children when they’re in or near water, and never leave them unattended. Appoint a “designated water watcher”—an adult tasked with supervising children in the water. The water watcher should focus solely on the children when on duty. Keep a phone nearby in the event calling for help is necessary.
  • Secure the premises: Install proper barriers, covers, and alarms. Completely surround your pool with a fence or barrier at least four feet high with a self-closing, self-latching gate. Place a safety cover on the pool or hot tub when not in use, and remove any ladders or steps used for access. Add a pool alarm set to go off if anyone enters the pool when not in use.
  • Teach children how to swim: Enroll children in swimming lessons; there are many free or reduced-cost options available from the local YMCA and other organizations. However, Greenspan says parents still need to stay vigilant; swimming lessons do not replace proper supervision.
  • Suit up: Always have young or inexperienced swimmers wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
  • Drain NO!: Teach children to stay away from the drains in a pool, as drains or suction outlets can pull children under by their hair, limbs, jewelry, or bathing suits. Make sure the drain cover is intact before allowing children into a pool.
  • Keep it clean: Maintain proper chemical levels, circulation, and filtration to ensure the pool is clean, clear, and safe from disease-causing microorganisms.
  • Be a teetotaler: Always avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating, or water skiing; never drink alcohol while supervising children. Watch teens carefully around the water, as alcohol is involved in more than 70 percent of teenage drownings, Greenspan notes.
  • Make plans: Have a response plan to ensure everyone in the home knows how to react in an emergency. Keep safety equipment on hand, and take first aid and CPR courses. “In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone’s life. CPR performed by bystanders has been shown to improve outcomes in drowning victims,” Greenspan says. CPR classes are available through many hospitals, community centers, or by contacting the American Red Cross at 1-800-RED-CROSS or

Swimming in open water (ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans) poses different risks for children. According to the CDC, children 5 years old and older are more likely to drown in open water, with the risk of drowning increasing with age. The average 10-year-old, for example, is three times more likely to drown in open water than in a pool.

To stay safe on open waters, experts recommend:

  • Talk about hidden hazards: Teach children that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool, and explain the hidden dangers, such as limited visibility, sudden drop-off, currents, changing weather, and undertow. According to the Red Cross, more than 100 people die annually due to rip currents on U.S. beaches.
  • Read the signs: Look for designated swimming areas that are supervised by lifeguards. Always heed the warnings and instructions of lifeguards, as well as flags or signs.
  • Be visible: Stay within view of the lifeguards; if you can’t see them, they can’t see you!
  • Don’t go it alone: Always swim with at least one buddy.
  • Don the vest: Wear a life jacket at all times when boating or participating in other water activities; choose a U.S. Coast Guard–approved jacket that is right for the child’s weight and water activity.
  • Know water rescue techniques: It is important to know how to respond in an emergency without putting yourself at risk of drowning. Enroll in Red Cross water safety, first aid, and CPR courses to learn what to do.