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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Prevent Drowning -- Four Keys To Protect Your Child

August 13, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Playing in the water at a beach or pool can be great fun and great exercise, and should be part of every childhood. But the reality is that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death. What should parents know and do as they slide on those bathing suits and pack up the car?

1. Teach your child to swim.

All children should learn to swim. This is an important safety skill, and can help prevent drowning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents should  consider swimming lessons for their children ages 1 to 4 years. Studies show that children of this age are less likely to drown if they have had formal swimming lessons.

The studies don't provide any evidence to show which types of lessons are best. The AAP does not recommend swimming lessons for children under a year.

Parents should decide about swimming lessons based on their child's:

  • Physical abilities
  • Emotional readiness
  • Closeness to water (Families with a pool or who live near a body of water might want to consider early lessons.)

Learn more about choosing a swim class for your child here.

2. Always supervise your child in the water.

Swimming lessons do not make supervision any less necessary; even an advanced swimmer can drown. The AAP recommends that parents:

  • Never, ever, even for a moment, leave small children alone or in the care of another young child while in or near any kind of water. (This includes bathtubs, toilets, buckets or irrigation ditches).
  • Keep a young child or weak swimmer within arm's reach when in the water.
  • Keep your eyes on older children or better swimmers at all times.
  • Ask about exposure to water and supervision at any child care program you child attends.
  • Choose swimming areas with lifeguards. (You still need to keep your eyes on your kids. Lifeguards can't watch every person at every moment!)

3. Fence in the pool.

According to the AAP, a fence that completely surrounds a pool (isolating it from the house) can cut the drowning risk by half. To be really safe, a fence should:

  • Be at least four feet high
  • Be difficult to climb
  • Have a self-latching and self-closing gate

Local building codes don't usually require fencing for inflatable pools. But many of them contain thousands of gallons of water and stay up for weeks at a time.

4. Learn CPR.

All parents should know CPR. Starting CPR immediately can mean the difference between life and death — and can prevent severe brain damage. To find a class near you, visit the website of the American Red Cross.

The AAP offers some other suggestions for parents to prevent drowning:

  • Don't use air-filled swimming aids like water wings instead of life jackets. They aren't designed to keep kids safe.
  • All children (and weak swimmers) should wear a life jacket in a boat or at water's edge.
  • Know how deep the water is — and what's underneath it — before letting kids jump in. Feet first is always safer; never let kids dive in unless you know it's deep enough. (For example, a pool should be at least 12 feet deep under a diving board).
  • When at an ocean beach, teach kids what to do in a rip current: Swim parallel to the shore until you can get out of the current, then swim back to shore.
  • Alcohol is a major risk factor when it comes to teen drowning. Talk to your teens about the dangers of drinking.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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