Water Safety is Health Care: A Pediatrician’s View

By Foss Swim School

May is Water Safety Month, and every year Foss Swim School makes a special effort to highlight the importance of respecting water and learning to swim. For pediatricians like Dr. Julie Ewasiuk, who practices at South Lake Pediatrics in a suburb of Minneapolis, any month and every month is water safety month.

“A big part of being a pediatrician is counseling parents about keeping kids safe and healthy,” Dr. Ewasiuk explained. “Water safety is one of the things we talk about regularly, starting with infants. As soon as they get mobile, there’s a risk – drowning is the second-leading cause of death for toddlers. It just takes a couple inches of water.”

Like other health care needs, water safety education and the associated actions for parents to take change over time. In the earliest visits, Dr. Ewasiuk said, water safety is all about removing and mitigating risks, things like:

  • Never leaving a child unattended in a bathtub or around water: Drowning can happen in just a few seconds. It may seem obvious to stay with a child but can never be overstated.
  • Draining tubs, buckets, and infant baths: With all the activity that goes with caring for a child, it’s easy to miss hazards that are sitting in plain sight. Deal with standing water as soon as you are done using it.
  • Putting lid locks on toilets: Toilets area drowning hazard especially for toddlers who are learning to pull themselves up on things. Lid locks are a simple, inexpensive way to greatly reduce their risk.
  • Keep the bathroom door closed: Simply keeping the bathroom door shut when not in use is an effective way to reduce risk for children who can’t reach the handle.

Water Safety Messages Grow with Kids

As children get older, the risks evolve. Once children are mobile, the biggest risks come from things like hot tubs and pools.

“So many times, drowning happens when it’s not a water-related activity,” Dr. Ewasiuk said. Often children go exploring and may get into water deliberately or accidentally. If a child is alone, and no one has been assigned to keep an eye on the water, the results can be tragic.

Owners of pools and hot tubs need to secure those spaces with fences, gates and locks that children can’t easily get past. But even these only reduce the risk; they don’t eliminate it. Parents should make sure they are aware of any drowning risks in the area, and both watch children and teach them to stay away from the water.

As kids reach their tweens and teens, open water becomes more of a risk. Ensuring the use of floatation when boating and teaching kids to respect water are part of a parent’s responsibility. “It’s important to talk about [water safety], even with kids who know how to swim,” she said. Talk about general safety practices around water. Quiz them. ‘Are you ever allowed to go in alone?’”

But the best thing a parent can do to reduce drowning risk is to ensure their children learn to swim.

Swim Lessons: The Most Effective Way to Reduce Drowning Risk

With 15 years of experience as a pediatrician, Dr. Ewasiuk knows that water safety is one of many things parents need to address. As soon as a child is old enough, she starts asking about swim lessons.

“I think it’s important for all kids to learn to swim,” she said.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends every child take swimming lessons. When you start depends on the child. Many can start as babies alongside a parent. Developmentally, most children are ready by age four.”

Starting as early as the child is ready is a good practice, Dr. Ewasiuk noted. “I think one barrier when kids get older is that sometimes it’s hard to find time. So, it’s good to start in preschool when they don’t have as many activities.”

Dr. Ewasiuk also understands there can be other barriers to learning to swim. Her own three children attended FOSS and enjoyed the experience, but she knows some children are anxious, as are some parents. For those cases, she recommends finding small steps to build comfort first. “In Minnesota, it’s pretty easy to get to a lake or a zero-depth entry pool” where wading and splashing, fully supervised, can build comfort and enjoyment.

And swimming skill isn’t limited to children. Dr. Ewasiuk noted that in some cases, swimming wasn’t part of the parent’s childhood, and so doesn’t register as a need for children, many parents didn’t learn to swim or may not be comfortable around water themselves. “If they can, I encourage the parents to learn to swim too,” she said.

It’s a great lifelong skill for fun, safety and health. And Dr. Ewasiuk knows that firsthand too. “I learned to love swimming as an adult when I started training for triathlons. I did swimming lessons as a child but was never a competitive swimmer. I really enjoy swimming now.”

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