The drowning deaths of country singer Granger Smith’s 3-year-old son earlier this month, as well as Olympic skier Bode Miller’s 19-month-old daughter last June, have shed light on the scary truth that water poses a major risk to all children, particularly curious toddlers.
And while those deaths are tragic, they are sadly not rare.
Drowning is the leading cause of accidental, injury-related death among 1- to 4-year-olds in the United States, and a leading cause of death among older children and teens as well. A recent report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that the number of fatal drownings in pools and spas has increased and found, unsurprisingly, that the summer months are by far the most dangerous.
“The two most dangerous things we do with our children are put them in the car, and put them in a place where they access or are nearby a swimming pool, or maybe a lake or hot tub,” Alan Korn, executive director of Abbey’s Hope, a foundation that works on pool safety in honor of its namesake, Abbey Taylor, who died in a pool drowning.
Here are a few of the basics every parent needs to know:
1. Barriers are essential.
In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its policy on preventing drowning (you can read the whole thing here), which emphasizes just how important it is to make sure there are plenty of barriers between kids and water — particularly because about 70% of kids under the age of 5 who’ve been in drowning accidents weren’t expected to be in or around a pool at the time. (For babies, the biggest risks are buckets and bathtubs; for school-age kids it’s pools, and for adolescents, it’s natural bodies of water.)
Pool owners must install four-sided fencing, the AAP urges, with a self-latching and self-closing gate that totally isolates the pool from the house and yard.
“Often, parents think there are barriers around the pool, but they mean on three sides,” said Korn. “But a child can quietly come out of the back of the house and — unnoticed — fall into the pool.” Alarms and weight-bearing pool covers may also help, the AAP says, but they’re not a substitute for adequate fencing.
2. Swim lessons should start super early.
Kids, of course, learn and develop at different rates, so there is no universal standard when they should start getting formal instruction in how to swim. But the AAP now says there’s evidence that swim lessons can help lower the risk of drowning, even for kids between the age of 1 and 4. (Dr. Sarah Denny, lead author of the policy statement and an emergency medicine specialist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost, however, that there is no evidence that self-rescue swim classes for babies prevent drowning at all.)
“Obviously, you’re not going to teach a kid to swim at 1 year old,” said Korn. “But you are setting the stage and getting them ready for the full-fledged swimming when they are a bit older.”
Swim lessons won’t drown-proof a child, particularly a really young one. But they’re an important layer of protection, experts say.
3. You have to really watch kids ...
Although so many drownings happen when kids aren’t supposed to be around water, others occur when an adult is present — even when a lifeguard is on duty. Which is why active water supervision is critically important, Denny said.
“You have to put the phone down,” she emphasized. “You have to be really engaged in watching your child.” If your kid is a beginner swimmer, that means being within arm’s length.
Abbey’s Hope promotes the idea of a “Water Watchdog”—literally a dog tag the group sends out, with the idea that an adult wears it to signify she or he is the one who will maintain visual contact with all of the kids in the group, not drink or talk on the phone while they’re watching, but will keep a phone close by in case of emergency.
“The problem is when everybody is watching, but no one is really watching,” said Korn, who recommends parents and caregivers trade off watchdog duty in 15-minute shifts.
4. ... because drowning doesn’t look like most people expect it to.
Drowning is a lot quieter than many of us expect, often silent as the person drowning can’t spare any breath to make noise or call out for help. Likewise, a child may not splash or move around all that much.
A very small percent of children can experience delayed symptoms of drowning, where they appear to be fine but later begin to show signs of having water in their lungs, like lethargy, coughing, and chest pain. Though terms like “secondary” and “dry” drowning are often used in the media (including several times on HuffPost), the AAP now says those terms should not be used — and instead, parents and clinicians should understand the drowning process is a continuum.
5. “Floaties” won’t keep your little one safe.
The only device that has been clearly shown to help keep kids safe is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, Denny said.
“Water wings are not safe. If they’re being used for fun, that’s one thing. But if they’re being used as a drowning-prevention tool, that’s not a safe plan,” she said.
The same goes for noodles or tubes — they’re designed to be toys, not to keep kids from drowning.
When it comes to all of this safety stuff, both Denny and Korn emphasized that the goal is not to frighten parents, and they acknowledged that tragic stories like Smith’s and Miller’s can really put moms and dads on edge. But the reality is that drowning has been a leading cause of death for children for a long time, and layers of protection are essential because so often kids find themselves in danger when they aren’t even supposed to be around the water.
“Swimming is so fun. It’s a great way to get exercise and to play,” Denny said. “As long as parents are taking steps to think about safety, and they’re being thoughtful of the risks.”