How To Teach Your Kids Water Safety

Drowning is the leading cause of death for young children.

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In backyards across the United States, families are finding ways to have splashy fun. During the COVID pandemic, when many public pools were closed, backyard pool sales took off, with everything from blow-up swimming pools to backyard construction projects selling out. Though kids and parents alike rejoice at having a spot for summer fun (and a way to get in a swim workout), experts caution that with a great new home pool comes great responsibility—especially when it comes to teaching kids water safety.

“Drowning is the single leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and it’s one of the top causes of death for teens,” said pediatrician Ben Hoffman, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence & Poison Prevention. “This is especially important as children spend more time at home with caregivers who may be distracted by work and other responsibilities.”

“Drowning can happen in less than 20 seconds. It usually isn’t dramatic, like on film, but quiet—slipping under the water and unable to yell for help,” said Kate Schnatterback, swim instructor and head of Tri-umph Triathlon Training. “That’s why regardless of age, one needs to learn to respect the water.”

At Brighton Swim Academy in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, instructor Lance Ogren does not begin with teaching children how to swim until they have a solid understanding of water safety. Teaching water safety is more than telling kids to be careful—it’s a series of specific steps adults and children should take to ensure safety around any body of water, be it a pool, spa, wading pool, or open water.

1. Get trained in CPR.

Before you even get your pool, learn CPR. Studies show that basic lifesaving measures, such as CPR, increase the chances of survival after drowning, yet fewer than 20 percent of Americans know this basic lifesaving skill. “Having parents, family, babysitters, caregivers certified in CPR or first aid would be ideal,” said Schnatterback.

2. Water Safety Rule No. 1: No kids in the pool without an adult.

“The very first thing we teach at Brighton Swim Academy is respect for the pool,” said Ogren. “Before the child is allowed to enter the pool, we ask, ‘Who do you have to wait for before getting into the pool?’ The answer is always ‘An adult,’ be it a mother, father, aunt, or other caregiver.” Never—even for a moment—leave young children alone or in the care of another child while near a pool.

3. No water wings.

For many parents, water wings are seen as a way to keep kids safe and protected at the pool, but water wings actually create a false sense of security, said Schnatterback. “Water wings are not life-saving devices. They can slip off the arms of a child.” Ditto for swim noodles, rafts, swim rings, and other swim toys—they’re toys, not safety devices. Opt for life jackets instead—Coast Guard-approved and properly-fitting life jackets are the safer choice for flotation devices. 

4. Get kids used to the water first.

The first step to water safety—and, hopefully, eventual swimming fun—is acclimation. “The most basic skill parents can work on is getting your child acclimated to having water on their face,” said Ogren. “This can be as simple as pouring cups of water over your child’s face in the bathtub before you add soap. Another skill is breath control. Breath control can start off by holding their breath, then progressing to blowing bubbles under water.” During this stage, it’s important to make the lessons fun and developmentally appropriate, said Ogren: “Forcing a child to perform skills they are not ready for can be traumatizing and can lead to a lifelong fear of the water.”

5. Teach kids to float before swimming.

Floating on one’s back is considered one of the most important water safety skills a person can possess. To teach kids this skill, Schnatterback advised starting with a lot of support. With one hand on the small of the child’s back and the other on the back of the shoulder, have the child rest their head on your shoulder, like a pillow. Instruct them to make arms like an airplane and legs like a “V” while pushing the stomach up to the sky. Help them relax while supporting them and having them breath in and out. If the child’s legs sink, teach them to make little kicks to get hips back up.

6. Call in the pros.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, formal swim lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88%. In addition to increasing water safety, lessons can also help teach children good swim mechanics early on, which will increase confidence and enthusiasm for swimming in the long run. 

7. Pay attention!

An analysis of child death review data found that supervision was missing almost half the time a child fatally drowned in a pool. Keep your child in sight (without distractions from phones or books) anytime they are in the pool. “A parent must be dedicated to the pool as a water-watcher whenever children are swimming,” said Ogren. “Just because your child may know how to swim and/or is taking swim lessons does not eliminate the need for supervision.”

8. Model good swim safety behavior.

Kids learn from watching adults, so always model the behavior you’d like to see them do. That means practicing water safety in your home pool as well as around other bodies of water. For example, if you are planning to do an open-water swim at the local beach, teach your kids the water-safety steps you follow, like looking up weather conditions online, following the guidance of safety flags/signs, looking for signs of rip currents, and only swimming with a buddy. When kids see a healthy respect for water in the adults around them, they’re more likely to follow suit.

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