Watching the news these days makes the world seem like a terrifying place to keep kids safe. But one of the most dangerous risks is often much more mundane than a war or a global pandemic. Drowning is the leading cause of death in children ages one to four, and the second for ages one to 14. And even when kids are able to survive this type of incident, non-fatal drowning accidents usually result in severe neurological damage and long-term disability.
Many parents have heard the same advice again and again—when kids are near a body of water, watch them at all times, don’t drink, and stay off your phone. But numbers show these recommendations are just not enough.
“We notice things that are bright. We notice things that are loud. We notice things that move a lot,” says Graham Snyder, an emergency physician at Wake Med, who has specialized in drowning prevention for 15 years. “We don’t notice things that are quiet, that are still, that are dark, and unfortunately, that’s what drowning is.”
To help reduce kids’ risk of drowning, parents are going beyond classic recommendations and turning to new strategies—not to replace high-quality adult supervision, but to enhance it.
Mind the drop-off
Images of drowning might conjure up a kid getting disoriented after falling into the deep end of a pool or lake. While that does happen, the most dangerous area is much closer to firm land—the 3 to 5 feet zone.
“Most drownings happen in water just over [children’s] heads. It’s actually not even the deep end,” says Erika Kemp, a pediatric occupational therapist at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center specializing in drowning prevention for children with special needs.
This is particularly true if younguns don’t notice the change while going from the shallow end into deeper water. They think they can take an extra step, but then they lose their balance and end up bobbing vertically, drowning where they can almost touch the bottom.
When possible, walk your kids by the hand and into the water to show them where the drop-off is, or park your chair right by that limit so they can use you as a landmark. That way they’ll have a better idea about where they are safe and where they need to start being especially careful.
In addition to that, Kemp tells parents to discourage horseplay, which can lead to kids getting disoriented in areas where they can’t touch or almost touch.
Get bright-colored swimsuits
Because of their dark bottoms and murky water, lakes, ponds, and beaches are generally much more dangerous than crystal clear pools. These bodies of brown water provide a lot less visibility, so in the event of a drowning accident, adults will waste precious seconds trying to find a kid in distress before they can actually move to assist them. And that’s not trivial—the amount of time a child spends underwater can make the difference between a simple scare and a more dramatic and permanent outcome.
Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, suggests you put your kids in bright-colored bathing suits to make them easier to spot in brown water settings. In 2021, Alive Solutions, a company specializing in aquatic safety, tested swimsuits in different colors against 18 inches of lake water to see which are easiest to spot for a quick rescue. The results showed all hues disappeared quickly and factors like weather, surface activity, light, and the color of the water and bottom of the lake or river greatly affected visibility. Having a swimsuit for each specific set of conditions is not practical or realistic, but highly visible, and bright colors like neon yellow, neon green, and neon orange work best in most scenarios. If you’re overseeing more than one kid, Kemp adds that dressing them all in the same color can help you spot them more easily.
If your kids are rocking unclothed tops, using bright-colored rash guards can be useful, especially when water covers their bottom half. Bright colors also help kids spot help more easily when they need it, so Kemp adds parents should teach them what color suits the lifeguards are wearing so they know who to look for and listen to.
Appoint one designated lifeguard at a time
When it comes to fatal drowning accidents in natural waters, 62 percent of them happen in the presence of a supervising adult. Ironically, Snyder says in this particular case, two sets of eyes are not better than one.
“When everybody thinks somebody else is watching, nobody is watching. It’s called diffusion of responsibility,” he explains. “But if I say ‘Ted, you’re in charge of the pool,’ then that’s much safer.”
This is especially important between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekends when research shows adults get more distracted. Grown-ups’ attention also tends to drift when talking to each other, so whoever is on lifeguard duty, should be fully dedicated to the job. To avoid having only one adult stuck talking to the children all day, taking short shifts is a good idea.
To check if a kid is drowning, Fisher and Kemp say adults shouldn’t watch out for specific movements, as they can look just like playing underwater. Instead, look at a kid’s eyes—a drowning child’s eyes will unequivocally show distress, Snyder explains. But if you can’t read their expression or you can’t make eye contact with them, you should reach out and check if they are in trouble.
Your kid most likely needs a life jacket—even when they say they don’t
You might think life jackets are just for boating, but they’re an easy way to avoid many types of drowning accidents in pools and other bodies of water.
Any accident in an aquatic setting can hinder someone’s ability to quickly get to safety—that’s even if they are great swimmers under normal circumstances. This is why Snyder recommends kids wear well-fitting life jackets, especially when they are in brown water.
“They shouldn’t be in the water without a life jacket unless they can confidently say they are an excellent swimmer,” he says.
A hypothetical test he uses to test whether a child is ready to be without a life jacket is to think if they’d actually be able to get accidentally kicked in the nose by another child, get their bearings, and swim to safety. If they can’t, don’t listen to any tantrums and get a life jacket on them.
Teach kids to alert an adult in case of trouble
A lot of accidents happen when a kid jumps into the water to help a friend or sibling who’s drowning, only to be pulled under themselves.
Kemp advises parents to explicitly teach small children to alert adults in case of an emergency rather than attempting their own rescue mission.
Older kids may learn to help in a drowning situation by using something like a foam noodle to reach from the edge of a body of water and pull the person in trouble to safety. This method is recommended by the American Red Cross, and Kemp also teaches it to her students.
“If [kids] are in the act of drowning they usually can see something coming at them,” she says.
This can give a drowning victim some reprieve, and sometimes even enough time to get their bearings and help in their own rescue.
Kids are unpredictable, which is why close attention is always key to avoiding ruining what would otherwise be a perfect summer. With a few strategic tips, adults will be able to think less about potential tragedies and focus their energy on having safe fun times with their little ones.