Dr. Rupal Upadhyay, MD, has cared for a lot of children in her 15 years as a pediatrician in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. And while parents have lots of things to remember and lots of choices to make, which change as children age, one topic she wants them to keep at the front of their mind throughout childhood is water safety.
“Water safety is a very important piece that sometimes gets forgotten,” Dr. Upadhyay said. “I feel like it’s just as important as the conversations we have about car seat safety.”
Statistics show that in kids between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., even more than car accidents, and it is the second leading cause after car accidents for kids up to age 14. To this day, Dr. Upadhyay said, she remembers being in the ICU during her residency when a 2-year-old drowning victim was brought in. “He was found at the bottom of a pool. It was a summer barbecue, and probably only minutes [before] they noticed he was missing. We tried resuscitating him for over two hours. We just kept going, but unfortunately we weren’t able to save him. I still get goosebumps.”
Water Safety Starts in the Home
The good news is that relatively simple precautions can greatly reduce the risk, as long as parents are aware and make them a habit. While those precautions change with the age of the child, the full and undivided attention of an adult is always a factor.
“For newborns, especially for new parents, they’re not accustomed to the amount of attention babies need,” she said. “Drowning for newborns and infants can occur in less than two inches of water, and in a matter of seconds. It’s not just water safety as we think of it around a pool, but even in your home, in the bathtub.”
The key message: “Never, NEVER leave a baby unattended near water, even for a few seconds, not even with an older sibling – they’re not sure what they’re watching for.”
An additional layer of precaution in the event that the unthinkable happens is to learn infant CPR and life support.
Top Tips for Water Safety for Kids on the Go
Dr. Upadhyay encourages parents to follow all the best water safety tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (a full article on the topic can be found on their HealthyChildren.org site) but three stand out at the top of the list:
- Secure home pools: These are the greatest drowning risk for kids who are mobile. Having a secure four-foot fence not just around the yard, but the pool itself, can help prevent younger kids who have slipped out the back door.
- Keep young swimmers within arm’s reach: Smaller kids aren’t as aware of their abilities or good at assessing risk, and can tire quickly. An adult needs to be literally at hand.
- Assign a water watcher: Even for older kids and stronger swimmers, an adult nearby needs to be tasked with watching them closely – not on a phone, not engaged in a conversation. This is especially true in distracting environments like parties. (FOSS created a printable Water Watcher tag that can be used to identify who is on deck – a physical token that must be passed from hand to hand which could help reduce miscommunications that might leave kids unattended.)
Choosing a Good Swim School
Another component of water safety is giving kids the opportunity to learn to swim. “Swim lessons add a layer of protection,” Dr. Upadhyay said. “Approximately 1,000 kids drown each year in the U.S., and of those, 69% weren’t expected to be near the water.” That means the normal precautions parents would normally take weren’t on the table. In this case, the best protection is a child who won’t panic upon finding themselves in the water and can take steps towards self-rescue.
Dr. Upadhyay’s children attend or attended Foss Swim School, but wherever parents choose to send their kids, getting quality, professional swim instruction is important.
“The first thing I tell parents is to make sure the educators or instructors are well trained, and can deal with the different developmental levels” of the student in their class. Needing to attend to many kids at different levels can be a challenge, so well balanced classes in terms of not just age but skill are a plus, she continued.
“Class size is a big deal too – the younger they are, the fewer kids in a class,” she said. “I think that’s really important. Especially at those early stages, you have one instructor who has to keep eyes on the kids at all times. It’s difficult to do when you’ve got more kids in a class.”
The other thing she recommends is a class with a dedicated focus on water safety, not just swim skills. “One thing I remind parents, the skill of learning swimming doesn’t make them drownproof,” Dr. Upadhyay said. “I tell parents to look for what we refer to as water competency. Kids should also learn water survival. They should have that self-rescue capability.”
With water safety in mind, families can feel more confident in taking on the fun water provides, while never forgetting to respect water. “Especially now in Chicago, the weather is changing and summer is upon us, and with that comes a lot of water sports, pool parties, and swimming,” she said. “It’s really important to remind families to have fun, but put safety first.”