By Nancy Gottesman
Summer is the season we all live for: family fun for three glorious, sun-filled months of swimming, boating, fishing, camping, vacationing and just enjoying the slower pace and longer days. Because nearly all of these activities involve proximity to a body of water, we feel it’s in the best interest of your family’s safety to report this alarming statistic: Between May and August, drowning deaths among children increase 89 percent over the rest of the year.
You shouldn’t, however, let this news dampen your favorite time of year. By employing these five smart water safeguards this summer (as well as the rest of the year!), you’ll virtually guarantee that your family will have a perfect— and safe—season in the sun. Just remember to bring the sunscreen.
1» Never leave young children alone near a pool or bathtub (or any body of water)—not even for a second. We can’t stress this enough. Why? Because drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death for children ages 1 to 4. For this reason, the Red Cross, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and toddler health experts all recommend “reach” or “touch” supervision. This means that a responsible adult needs to be within an arm’s length of the kids (either in or on the side of the pool or tub).
“There could be a lot of parents around the pool, but that doesn’t mean they’re watching and supervising,” says Vicky H. Becherer, MSN, RN, an assistant teaching professor of nursing at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. “A young child could go under and nobody may notice.”
The same goes for the bathtub. In addition to sitting within reach, bring everything—towels, soap, shampoo, bath toys—into the bathroom with you and don’t leave until your child is out of the tub! If the phone or doorbell rings, forget about answering unless you take your child with you.
Other vital pool and tub safety rules:
» Designate a pool watcher. Just as people at parties designate a driver, one responsible adult should be assigned to supervise at arm’s length from the kids in the pool. This adult should not be reading, playing cards or involved in conversation (on the phone or with other parents), and needs to remain diligently at her post until another designated watcher relieves her.
» Flotation devices or tub toys do not replace “reach” supervision. They can lose air or slip out from under a child.
» Don’t drink alcohol when supervising. You know why!
» Never leave an older child in charge of a toddler.
“A 7-year-old may be old enough to stay in the tub by himself when you go to answer the phone, but he’s not old enough to supervise a younger child,” cautions Karen Sheehan, MD, an attending physician of emergency medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
» Swimming lessons are not a substitute for vigilance. Research does show that lessons decrease the risk of death from drowning in 1- to 4-year-old toddlers. However, don’t be lulled into being less cautious just because your child has had swim instruction. Remember: No child is drown-proof.
2» Keep the lid of the toilet down, and close and latch the door to the bathroom even when it is not in use. The toilet is just another toy to a toddler. It’s at eye level; it’s filled with water (how cool!); it’s perfect for throwing small objects into. “Toddlers are top heavy,” explains Rene Hopkins, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids (an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing unintentional childhood injury) at MCGHealth Children’s Medical Center in Augusta, Ga. “So when they lean into the toilet bowl to get a toy back, their feet come off the ground and they get stuck head first in the water.”
By all means, childproof the toilet and all bathroom doorknobs. Just be aware that latches and locks are no substitute for paying close attention. “There’s nothing that is completely ‘childproof,’” warns Hopkins. “Childproofing devices are just another layer of protection that buys you time to intervene.”
3» Be sure that all containers of liquids are emptied immediately after use. A small child can drown in less than 1 inch of water. This means that drowning can happen in places you’d never even think about: the sink, fishponds, aquariums, ditches filled with rain water, fountains, watering cans, inflatable pools, even the bucket you use to wash your car can all be toddler hazards if water is not removed immediately. “Bathtubs and toddler pools are the biggest problems,” Sheehan emphasizes. “When you’re not looking, a child can sneak into either one of these—kids are just so fast.”
Even soup can be perilous. Sheehan tells us about a case in which a mother left a vat of chicken soup on the ground to cool and her top-heavy toddler fell into it. “Parents don’t see these things as threatening,” asserts Sheehan. “But they have to pay attention and empty any container of liquid before it’s left out for a toddler to find.”
4» Make sure that your pool is enclosed by a fence that is at least 4 feet high. This is nonnegotiable! Among drownings of children ages 1 to 4, most occur in residential swimming pools.
More alarming is the fact that most of the toddlers who were found in pools were last seen in the home, had been out of sight for less than five minutes and were being cared for by one or both parents at the time!
Anyone who has cared for a toddler knows how quickly she can move. One minute, she’s watching a Dora video; the next minute, you notice it’s a little too quiet and your child is no longer in front of the TV. “These kids are frequently discovered in the pool in non-bathing attire,” says Hopkins. “That means it wasn’t a swim time.” Pools are particularly seductive for inquisitive children.
This is why the government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has determined— after reviewing much data—that the best way to reduce the incidence of child drownings is to construct barriers that prevent toddlers from gaining access to swimming pools.
The optimal pool or hot tub barricade is one that keeps a child from getting over, under or through it. According to the CPSC, the Red Cross, Safe Kids and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are steps you must take to ensure that your pool is safe and its barriers successful:
» Fences should be at least 4 feet high and without features that could be used as footrails or handrails for kids to climb. (Note: Some states may mandate 5-foot fencing. Check with your state’s department of health to learn what the fence height requirements are around your pool in your area.)
» Slats should be less than 4 inches apart so a toddler can’t get through. (If it’s a chain-link fence, no opening should be bigger than 13⁄4 inches.)
» All gates need to be self-closing and self-latching, with the latch high enough to be out of a small child’s reach.
» For an above-ground pool, ladders or steps leading up to the water need to be surrounded by the same type of fencing and gates described above.
» Ideally, fencing should be four-sided, completely separating the house and backyard play area from the pool. However, if the wall of your house comprises one side of the pool barrier, any doors or windows leading outside should be locked at all times and must have an alarm to alert you when someone enters the pool area.
» Never leave patio furniture near a pool fence because kids can use it to climb.
» Remove all fl oats, balls and toys from the pool and deck area—they’re too intriguing to toddlers. Finally, if you can’t find your child where you left him, always check your pool. Go to the edge of the water and scan the bottom, the surface and surrounding pool area. “When ‘Johnny’ comes up missing, the first place you need to look is the pool,” says Hopkins. “Timing is critical.”
5» Learn to perform CPR—it can be a lifesaver.
Why is timing critical? Because if a child is found face down in the pool, he isn’t breathing or circulating blood. Without oxygen, brain damage or death can happen in less than eight minutes. CPR—which stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation—is a combination of rescue breathing (mouth-to-mouth) and chest compressions that can restore oxygen to the lungs and brain.
It not only helps save lives, but has also proven to help near-drowning victims recover.“Knowing how to perform CPR won’t prevent drowning, but it can decrease the amount of time that a child is without oxygen and get his heart pumping,” explains Becherer. If your child has lost consciousness and isn’t breathing, you’ll need to call 911—but not before you perform one to two minutes of CPR. “If you’re alone, perform a few full cycles of CPR [mouth-to- mouth and chest compressions] before you call for help,” says Hopkins. “Restoring oxygen can make a huge difference in future quality of life.”
Healthcare experts recommend that all parents learn CPR—and not just for water-related accidents. “It’s the one known response that can save lives,” stresses Hopkins. A class can take as little as three hours. It’s well worth the minimal time investment. To find a CPR class in your area, visit the web site of the American Red Cross (redcross.org) or the American Heart Association (americanheart.org), which even offers an online CPR course (onlineaha.org).
SAFETY STRATEGIES WHEN YOU’RE AWAY FROM HOME
Invest in properly fitting Coast Guard–approved life vests. Read the label and abide by the weight specifications (e.g., “less than 30 pounds,” “30 to 50 pounds”). Make sure your child tries on the life vest and that it fits snugly before leaving the dock. Remember that inflatable vests and arm devices such as water wings are not effective protection against drowning. Learn about the local weather before swimming or boating. Make other plans if the forecast includes strong winds or thunderstorms with lightning.
ON THE BEACH
Sit in an area where there is a lifeguard on duty. According to the president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, the biggest mistake people make is going to beaches where no lifeguards are present. If there is no lifeguard, consider another location. Know the meaning of and obey warnings on the colored beach flags. If there’s a rip current, the water will be discolored, choppy, foamy or filled with debris.
AT THE PUBLIC POOL
Make sure the water is clean and clear. You should be able to see the painted stripes on the bottom of the pool, and the side tiles should be clean, not sticky or slippery. Children can develop parasitic diseases such as giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis from swallowing water in contaminated pools. In healthy kids, these infections can cause severe diarrhea that can last from one to two weeks. Do not allow your child to sit, stand or play near the drain of a pool or hot tub. “Drains can be entrapment hazards,” says Rene Hopkins, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids at MCGHealth Children’s Medical Center. “Children need to wear their long hair pulled up or underneath a bathing cap so it doesn’t get sucked into the drain.”
Nancy Gottesman, a freelance writer in Santa Monica, Calif., plans to make her son Robby, 14, wear a life vest until he’s at least 30.
Five crucial tips for keeping your child safe this summer.