how to prevent childhood drowning

How to Prevent Childhood Drowning

Kids love to have fun in the water. With summer around the corner, families should get ready to enjoy swimming and other water activities safely.

Even if you are not planning a pool visit – remember that children can suffer from drowning at home almost anywhere that water is accumulated.

Read more to find out how to keep children safe from drowning.

Childhood drowning statistics

In 2017, drowning killed almost 1000 US children under 20 years. Fortunately, childhood drowning deaths have been steadily declining since 1985.

Drowning survivors can recover without neurological problems, but the risk of severe long term deficits increased with:

  • Prolonged submersion time (over 6 minutes)
  • Prolonged resuscitation efforts
  • Lack of bystander CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation)

Who is at greatest risk

All children are at risk of drowning. Kids of certain age groups, however, are at increased risk of drowning.

Toddlers – children ages 0 to 4 years had the highest rate of drowning in the year period between 2013 to 2017. Most infants under 12 months of age drowned in bathtubs and buckets, while pre-school aged children more often drowned in swimming pools. Most swimming pool drownings in children under 5 years occur during a time when children were not expected to be at the pool but had unsupervised access to one.

Teenagers ages 15 to 19 years old come in second place in terms of rates of drowning. Most fatal drownings in the age group occur in natural water settings. This increase in risk may be due to many different factors, including:

  • Underestimating danger
  • Overestimating skills
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Substance use, such as alcohol. Alcohol contributes to up to 70% of teen and adult recreational water deaths.
From the AAP’s Drowning Prevention Toolkit

Medical conditions at increased risk of drowning

We all know that healthy children can drown. However, there are certain medical conditions that can further increase the risk of drowning.

Children with epilepsy have an increased risk of drowning both in bathtubs and in swimming pools. The risk of fatal and nonfatal drowning up to 10 times greater in this population. Drowning is the leading cause of death of unintentional injury in people with epilepsy.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are also at a higher risk of drowning. The risk is greater when children with ASD are under 15 years old, and also when the child has a greater degree of intellectual disability. Wandering behavior is the most common cause of drowning in this population.

Children with rare heart conditions that cause arrhythmias can also be at an increased risk of drowning.

Pool safety

Having a pool is big fun but also a huge responsibility. Here are the tips that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for keeping children safe in and near the swimming pool.

Note: don’t forget to put on sunscreen! Read my article Safe Sunscreen Tips for Children and Babies to learn how to pick the best sunscreen for your child.

Security Fences

Safety fences around a pool are the most effective and proven way to prevent drowning of young children. Follow the following tips to install and use pool safety fences correctly.

  • Swimming pools have to be protected from children with fences that are at least 4 feet high on all four sides of the pool.
  • The fence should be climb-proof. Chain link fences make a poor choice for a pool safety fence because they are very easy to climb. There shouldn’t be any ledges or nearby objects that allow climbing the fence.
  • The fence should protect a child from being able to squeeze through the slats. Choose a fence with at most 4 inches of space in between them.
  • If a house wall also serves as a wall to the pool, making it a pool with a 3-side fence (the house is the 4th), then make sure that any windows facing into the pool area have window guards.
  • The fence should have a self-closing and self-latching gate that only opens away from the pool. The latch should be away from a child’s reach, at least 54 inches above the ground.
  • Fencing recommendations also apply to inflatable and other nonpermanent swimming pools

Pool alarms

Drowning is silent – a drowning child cannot be heard. There are various types of pool alarms. Whichever you consider getting, it is very important to make sure they are kept in good shape with good batteries. Remember that no alarm is a substitute for a proper pool fence. It is merely an additional layer of security.

  • Pool alarms: alarms that detect a change in the waves of the water and sound to attract attention when someone has fallen into the pool.
  • Pool fence alarm/house door alarm: alarms that alert when someone has opened the house back door to the pool or the fence that goes into the pool.

Be careful with pool covers

Pool covers cannot replace pool fences, but if you decide to use them as an additional layer of safety, make it’s an actual pool security cover. These should cover the entire pool securely enough so that a child cannot slip under it. Floating covers and winter covers are not proper safety equipment. These may appear like a solid surface to a child, and they may attempt to walk on it – quickly slipping under the cover and hidden from view!

Designated adult supervision at all times

  • Close supervision – Children should always be supervised by a responsible adult. Never leave a child alone in or near a pool – not even for a moment.
  • The adult supervising children should not be distracted and should not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • When inexperienced swimmers are in or near to the water, touch supervision should be done – which means keeping the child within an arm’s length from a responsible supervising adult
  • The supervising adult should ideally know how to swim and how to provide CPR.

You need multiple levels of safety

I have said it a couple of times already above, but it’s important to remember that pool safety requires multiple levels of safety to prevent drowning.

A note about health swimming

Remember these basic tips to prevent spreading diarrhea and illnesses in the pool:

  • Children with diarrhea should stay out of the water
  • Shower before going into the water
  • Teach children to not pee or poop in the water
  • Teach children to not swallow the water
Healthy and Safe Swimming
Infographic from the CDC

Open water swimming

For open water swimming, it is recommended for families to choose swimming sites with lifeguards. Even in the presence of a lifeguard, all guidelines about adult supervision still apply.

Parents should check the depth of the water first and see if there are any underwater hazards, before allowing children into the water. Swimmers should know how to act if there is a rip current: swimming in parallel to the shore until out of the current, then swimming back to the shore.

Teenagers should be counseled about the increased risk of drowning when alcohols and drugs are used.

Healthy and Safe Swimming
infographic by the CDC

Boat safety

All children should wear a life jacket when riding on a boat. Smaller children and those who can’t swim should also wear life jackets when near a water’s edge.

Prompt bystander CPR can save a life!

Every pool owner even if they don’t have children, should learn CPR. Every parent, even if they don’t have a pool, should also learn CPR.

Effective bystander CPR in the event of drowning, even before emergency medical services arrive, can dramatically improve the outcome of a drowning incident. You can save a life!

Any drowning victim that required CPR, even if they appeared to respond well at the scene, must be transferred to the emergency department for evaluation and monitoring.

Prevent drowning in the bathroom

Drowning prevention always makes us think about summer activities outdoors, but children can drown inside their own home. The bathroom is particularly dangerous because it has multiple drowning hazards. Follow these tips for drowning prevention at home:

  • Never leave small children unsupervised while in baths, hot tubs, or waddling pools. Supervision by other young children is not enough.
  • Bath seats are not a substitute for adult supervision.
  • Empty buckets and other containers right after use.
  • Children can drown in a toilet – do not leave a child alone in a bathroom!
  • Check if these guidelines are followed in out-of-home daycare.
From the AAP’s Drowning Prevention Toolkit

For more tips, including safety for baby bath time read my article 4 tips to make baby bath time safer and easier.

If you found this article helpful, or know someone who needs to read these safety tips, make sure to share on social media so that everyone can enjoy the water safely!


How to Prevent Childhood Drowning

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