Water Safety & Your Child: Useful Advice for Summertime Swimming

By Michele Braun Whiteaker

Count to ten.  Go ahead.  Count.  One . . . two . . . three . . . Keep going. Done? Now think how long it takes to scan a magazine or use the bathroom. Answer: Long enough for your child to drown. It only takes seconds, and it only takes inches. Any body of water is a potential hazard to children. So how can you ensure your aquatic outing results in a trip to the ice cream parlor rather than a trip to the hospital? The following are helpful tips to ensure a safe swim season.

Supervision Is Foremost

The American Red Cross advocates “reach” supervision. The American Academy of
Pediatrics calls it “touch” supervision. The idea is to keep your attention focused, staying close enough so you can pluck your child from the water should she go under.

“Don’t leave it up to the lifeguard to watch your child! Parents are the primary lifeguards for their kids,” warns Kim Patrick, coalition coordinator for Inland Empire’s SAFE KIDS program. Patrick warns that children should always be supervised when ocean swimming because it’s a big adjustment from pool swimming.

Connie Harvey, Health and Safety Expert for the American Red Cross agrees that children may have trouble adjusting to the ocean’s environment, fearing sand between their toes and the unsteadiness while standing in the ocean’s waves. Both Harvey and Patrick recommend direct supervision of children in open water until little ones demonstrate endurance and ability.

“Often a parent’s comfort level allows them to relax,” says Patrick. “Never become too confident of your child swimming in water – no matter how good of a swimmer you think they are.”

Natural and Public Waterways

To avoid the panic of losing your child, establish a meeting place where a lifeguard is on duty. The United States Lifesaving Association reports that drowning at a beach without lifeguard protection is almost five times as likely as drowning at a beach with lifeguards.

Beach lifeguards can inform families about the current conditions, the best place to swim for your child’s ability and possible hazards. Ocean conditions change moment to moment in natural settings advises Captain Garth Canning of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division.

“Rip currents are the number one cause of rescues,” warns Canning. He says currents run like a river, quickly sweeping swimmers out to sea. A lifeguard will probably know you’re in trouble before you do, but waving your hands will signal you need help.

While the excitement of the beach often beckons children to make a dash for the waves, Canning also suggests parents scan for deep and shallow areas before entering the water – feet first. For extra precaution, Canning recommends keeping weak swimmers nearby where they can stand in water below their waist (in the ocean) or chin (in the pool).

When visiting beaches, lakes and pools, following posted rules and warnings are the best ways to prevent injuries. According to Gary Dickerson with Los Angeles Parks and Recreation, minor injuries occur on a daily basis at crowded pools, and more serious injuries, like a black eye, happen only once a week. While pools have specific diving rules to prevent serious spinal-cord injuries, beaches use a flag system to mark danger areas, surf zones, and swimming and bodyboarding spots. When swimming in lakes or rivers, choose an area with good water quality and safe natural conditions. Because of unknown drop-offs, never dive into lakes – hidden hazards may exist.

“At waterparks, families should follow the rules and children should ride water slides according to their height, skill and comfort level,” says Jim Stellmack with Knott’s Soak City. He cautions against creating fear in younger children by forcing them to ride on two-person slides that appeal to adults and teens.

Create Safety Zones 

Lifeguards, swim lessons, pool barriers, water wings, and floating toys can all give parents a false sense of security that their child is safe around water. But children who know how to swim can still drown. Gates can be left unlatched and toys can float away.

“You don’t want to leave toys in the pool because it’s a draw for the kids,” warns Patrick, whose own 2 1/2 year-old son died in 1999 from an accidental drowning. “Most good parents check on their kids every five minutes. But, in four to six minutes a child in the water can suffer brain damage or death.”

Barriers such as pool gates and door alarms allow those extra few minutes to catch the child before he enters the water, according to Patrick. She also recommends home pool parties have at least two Water Watchers designated – one to watch the children and another to watch the water. Free Water Watcher tags and information can be obtained at

“The unique thing about drowning is that the consequences are so dire and so final, that you don’t get a second chance,” says Dr. Gary Smith of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

See also: Helping Kids Learn to Swim Safely