Children's Health

How to Prevent Childhood Drownings

Drowning is one of the leading causes of childhood deaths. In children under the age of four, only birth defects claim more lives. In accidental deaths of children under the age of 15, it’s second only to car accidents. Knowing these sobering statistics is the first step in battling these preventable tragedies.

I spoke with water safety expert Kelly Gaines to gain insight on this topic. Gaines is the owner of Charlotte Aquatics in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has taught swim lessons for all ages since 1996.

Adult supervision is essential, Gaines says, “during bathtime, pool time, and when you’re not even thinking about swimming.” In fact, she herself had a close call when her daughter was a toddler. “I always thought that if my child fell into my pool, then I would know about it. Then one beautiful day I was out working in the garden and I just happened to look up.” Her two-year old was falling into the pool reaching out for a dropped toy. “It was so quiet and so quick, there could very easily have been a much worse outcome.” It can take as little as 20-60 seconds for a child to stop resisting and become completely submerged.

Barriers are also key: pool fences, covers, gates and alarms that prevent unsupervised children and uninvited guests from entering the pool. Self-closing and self-latching gates are especially important, because it’s very easy to accidentally leave the gate open.

Classes teach swimming techniques, safe behavior and life skills. There are swim classes available for ages and skill levels. Generally, the better someone is at swimming, the more likely they are to emerge safely after an incident like slipping into the pool or falling off a dock. “If you can’t keep your head above water, you can’t breathe,” says Kelly Gaines. “When you can swim, you can pop back up, turn around and get to the wall, ladder or the closest exit point, even if it’s behind you.” Swim lessons can also develop a sense of comfort in the water and the ability to float, which both contribute to self-preservation.

Don’t jump in if you don’t know how deep the water is.

On the other hand, parents shouldn’t let their kids’ ability to swim lull them into a false sense of security. Even strong swimmers are susceptible to making mistakes, tiring out, getting injured or being dragged under by external forces like pool equipment, clothing or horseplay. Accidents happen and when they do, someone must be there to respond.

It’s an awful feeling to see your child struggle and be unable to help them, Gaines says. So at the very least, if you can’t swim, learn to do so right away. It’s never too late – adult swim classes are offered at YMCAs and swim schools across the country. Gaines also recommends CPR and First Aid certification for all parents.


It’s also necessary to learn the signs of drowning. Every incident is different, but it does not look like it does in the movies. As Gaines explains, swimmers in distress are usually too exhausted to thrash, splash or call for help. Instead, “they go vertical, with their legs hanging down. They’re not moving forward. They’re gasping for breath with their mouth at or just above the water.” When a small child with no skill level or strength drops into the water, they tend to sink right down. The air in their lungs might cause a quick bob or bounce, but after that they become submerged within just a few moments.

Water Safety Rules You Should Always Follow

Whenever you’re around the water, these rules apply to children and adults alike.

Never swim without supervision. Adults must watch children at all times, and should not swim by themselves.

In group settings like family barbecues or big gatherings, avoid the group mentality that assumes someone else will be watching the kids. Too often, no one ends up doing it. Instead, Gaines and other swimming experts urges adults to appoint a designated Water Watcher. “Take shifts, even 15-30 minutes at a time. That means you’re not on your phone, not flipping burgers, you’re only watching the kids in the water.”

Don’t play on the pool deck and remove toys from the vicinity.

Don’t jump in if you don’t know how deep the water is. Shallow water can cause injuries, and water that’s too deep can be physically overwhelming.

If a child goes missing, check the water first. If your kid sneaks away and there’s a pool, fountain, lake or any other water nearby, look for them there before spending time looking elsewhere.

Water wings and novelty inflatables are not designed to save a life. If a child is relying on them, an adult needs to stay within arm’s reach at all times. Otherwise, fit children and non-swimmers with life jackets that are U.S. Coast Guard approved.

If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t jump in after a person who is struggling in the water. Instead, extend or throw them something to grab onto to help them stay afloat.

While young children are more prone to accidents, adolescents and adults tend to put themselves at risk by showboating, horsing around or otherwise using poor judgment. Counsel older kids about these risks, and know that they could be an issue when supervising them.


Courtesy of For more on the author, Emily Ferron, click here.


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