Even if kids have had swim lessons, parents must still supervise them in the water.
With swim season getting underway, parents may think that making sure their kids have swim lessons will make them water-safe.
But experts say that’s not enough.
Dr. Linda Quan, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that parents should never expect that any child will be “drown-proof,” even if that child is on the swim team.
For a child who is not a competent swimmer, “it’s arm’s-length supervision,” said Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, the medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore. Parents should not rely on inflatable floaties, he said, but should look for Coast Guard-approved life jackets when children need flotation devices.
“Even if a child is a confident swimmer, never letting them swim alone, making sure there is always another competent swimmer or adult who can watch them” remains essential, he said. Indeed, the Red Cross advises that even adults should not swim alone.
“Infant swim is not a drowning prevention exercise,” said Dr. Hoffman, who is the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. Between ages 1 and 4, children are developing water competence in swimming lessons, he said, and a Red Cross approved swimming skills program may be helpful for some children. And for children over 4, it’s clear — and even obvious — that swimming lessons are a good idea, but worries about overconfidence persist.
A big concern is that parents whose young children take swimming lessons will be lulled into a false sense of security. That was why, until 2010, the A.A.P. advised against swimming lessons for children under 4.
But after a 2009 study by researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the A.A.P. put out a policy statement on drowning prevention, recognizing that swimming lessons for young children were not a risk and might be protective — as long as parents continued to be protective as well.
Gitanjali S. Taneja, a scientist who is currently at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Ruth Brenner and their colleagues matched children who drowned with controls who were as similar as possible.
They found that early swimming lessons were actually associated with a lower risk of drowning. “It’s hard to know if it’s the swimming lessons themselves that are beneficial,” Dr. Taneja said. “One could say, maybe the type of caregivers and parents that put children in swimming lessons are more vigilant.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 people die by accidental drowning each day, two of them children under 14. And water safety experts, who mostly love the water, want to see children in the water, but they do worry. Dr. Taneja remembered the lead author, Dr. Brenner, who died last year, as passionate about the work. “She was a swimmer and she loved kids, and it was really important to her to be a part of the science and contribute to anything that could keep kids safer and having fun in the water.”
“People underestimate their risk and overestimate their ability,” Dr. Hoffman said. “A child will look at a swimming pool and not be able to comprehend the risk.”
“Swimming lessons are just part of being water competent,” Dr. Quan said. “Knowing about the water, knowing how to engage with the water, being able to swim, these are all pieces of water competency.” In fact, she said, ideally, swimming lessons for all children should have a focus on water safety beyond teaching strokes and form. In courses offered through the Red Cross or the YMCA, she said, children may be asked to practice swimming in their clothes, or putting on a life jacket and maneuvering in the water. “It’s not something you want to learn when you suddenly need it.”
Knowing about the water means understanding everything from the temperature to the possibility of underwater hazards. Learning to swim in a pool, Dr. Quan said, does not fully prepare you for ocean waves or currents, or really cold water. Her own children, she said, grew up on a lake and “could swim across the lake no problem.” Then she took them to Vietnam for a meeting on water safety, only to have another expert tell her, “Quan, your kids don’t know anything about surf and waves!”
Water competency is “a family affair,” Dr. Quan said. Parents heading to the beach need to think about how many children they’ll be supervising and whether there are enough adults to go around. Teach young children to ask permission before going in the water, but keep an eye on them when they are near the water, just in case they venture too close.
Families need to make sure that the lines of responsibility are clear, Dr. Quan said, because accidents can happen if “they think somebody is watching but they’re on their phone, or they’re reading.”
Although supervision is important, parents aren’t present all the time, so barriers and pool fences are essential to keep small children safe. Local ordinances and some state laws — and homeowners’ insurance policies — often require pool owners to have fences that limit access.
“Make sure if you have a pool at your house you have a fence with a working gate and a working lock,” Dr. Weiss said.
Pools in hotels can also be dangerous, especially if — as is often the case — there is no lifeguard.
Teenagers and toddlers are both at risk, Dr. Quan said, because they may go in the water without supervision. “Little kids wander in and teenagers go off with their friends,” she said.
Parents should be asking their adolescents questions about expeditions that may include water activities; check that the beach has a lifeguard and make sure that everyone on a boat trip has a life jacket.
Above all, remind them that alcohol and drugs are a very dangerous mix with either swimming or boating.
When people do get into trouble in the water, they won’t be able to yell for help, Dr. Quan said, because they are working so hard to keep their airways above water. But time is of the essence, and beyond the specific family responsibilities of supervision, the Red Cross would like to have more people in the community trained to recognize that distress, and safely start a rescue; that does not mean entering the water unless they are fully trained, but it does mean being able to “reach and throw.”
The object of all of this should be to keep kids safe, but also help them enjoy the water, to learn safety and drowning prevention while also getting the pleasure and the exercise that comes with competent swimming. It starts with the arm’s-length supervision that small children need, which ideally means having parents in the water with their children.
“Being in the water with your little kid is a terrific bonding experience,” Dr. Quan said. “You’re looking at them, you can’t hold your cellphone, you’re touching them.”
Keep everyone safe, and have fun.
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