How to keep your kids safe at the pool

Most childhood drowning deaths occur during momentary lapses of supervision

  • Babies - but also toddlers and any weak swimmers - need a responsible adult to be in the water and within arm's length.

    Babies - but also toddlers and any weak swimmers - need a responsible adult to be in the water and within arm's length.

Published: 6/21/2010 12:01 AM

With summer upon us, I wasn't surprised when the parents of a perky 6-month-old asked if she could spend some time in her grandparents' pool. Pretty much all the parents coming in for their children's well-baby checks had been asking similar questions. My simple answer was, "Of course!" Water can be loads of fun, especially with kids around, and swimming provides great exercise for children as well as their parents.

I also have to stress that while pools and lakes are fun places, families need to show respect for the powerful forces of water and sun. Parents must be ever-vigilant when their kids are in or near water, and they should protect their children's sensitive skin by applying and then reapplying sunscreen every two hours.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued its "Prevention of Drowning" policy statement and technical report, which opens by reminding parents and caregivers that drowning is one of the top causes of injury-related death in the pediatric population.

About 1,000 American children and teens die from unintentional drowning each year, with the highest drowning rate found in 0- to 4-year olds.

Pediatric researchers find that only 10 percent of young drowning victims were completely unsupervised at the time of their accidents, and that most childhood drownings are associated with a "momentary lapse in supervision."

When supervising poolside, parents are urged to focus on their swimmer and avoid distracting conversations, cell phone and laptop use, and consumption of impairing alcoholic beverages. In addition, if infants, toddlers, and weak swimmers are in the water, a responsible adult must also be in the water and close enough to provide "touch supervision," meaning within an arm's length of the little swimmer.

The AAP clearly states, "Children need to learn to swim." Academy experts previously felt that children under 4 were not developmentally ready to take on swim lessons and expressed concern that these early lessons would promote a false sense of confidence among parents and an unwise sense of fearlessness in their children. The pediatric group has revised this position and no longer advises against these early swim lessons, citing recent studies which conclude that participation in swim lessons does not, in fact, increase - and may actually decrease - the risk of drowning among 1- to 4-year-olds.

While water experience and swim skills are useful for kids of all ages, the AAP cautions that swim lessons alone are not enough to "drown-proof" any child. Teaching kids to swim with a buddy, promoting constant and attentive adult supervision, providing CPR training for responsible older kids and adults, and erecting protective four-sided isolation fencing around private pools are additional safety measures that can complement the water skills gained from swim lessons at all levels.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.