By Meghan Pembroke, senior public relations specialist, Seattle Children's Hospital
If you’ve ever spent time with a toddler, you know how quickly they can move. One minute they’re standing next to you, the next they’re sampling from the dog’s bowl, drawing on the wall or crawling up the stairs. Elizabeth Bennett, drowning prevention expert with Seattle Children’s Hospital, says toddlers’ speed and curiosity can be especially dangerous when it comes to water.
“Water is a magnet for kids,” says Bennett. “The 1- to 4-year-old age group is at very high risk around the water.” Over 1,500 children and teens die every year in the U.S. from drowning. In Washington state, an average of 20 children and teens drown every year.
Bennett says families’ Memorial Day preparations should include a water safety refresher, because this is an especially dangerous time of year for drowning.
“People underestimate the power of the water, especially in the spring,” she says. “The water’s really cold right now, and the rivers are running high. The minute you go in the water, you’ll feel the effects of cold water shock. It’s critical that you are already wearing a life jacket, because your limbs will start to stiffen right away.”
Be a good supervisor around the water
To keep kids safe in boats and around lakes, rivers and pools, Bennett encourages parents to have a plan for supervision. Good supervision — especially when it comes to water — starts with staying close and staying focused.
“Touch supervision is critical. You need to be close enough to touch a young child at all times,” says Bennett. “You also need to actively supervise. That means you are focused on supervising. You’re watching kids; you’re not having a conversation or reading a book.”
She encourages families to designate “child watchers” at every gathering, someone who’s there to watch kids and not do anything else. Even when water’s not the main event, a young child can wander away from a picnic or party and find themselves in trouble before anyone realizes what’s happened.
“At a party, it’s like everybody’s watching the kids, but nobody’s really watching,” says Bennett. “One of the things we’ve learned from drowning deaths is that often the young kids were playing near the water, not necessarily in the water.”
Alcohol and water: A dangerous combination
Bennett says that good supervision also means no alcohol for the designated “childwatcher.”
On Thursday, May 16, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law that includes tougher penalties and higher fines for boating under the influence. Every year, drunk boating contributes to drowning deaths. In fact, a new Coast Guard report found that alcohol use is the leading factor in fatal boating accidents and accounted for 17 percent of boating deaths in 2012.
Bennett says while it’s critical that boat operators stay sober, it’s just as important for boat passengers to avoid alcohol and drugs when they’re responsible for kids. The same rules apply on land.
“As the parent, you are the supervisor,” says Bennett. “Drinking impairs your judgment, and that can be deadly when water is involved. If you’re watching kids, you should not be using alcohol or drugs.”
Layers of protection
“Water safety and drowning prevention is about layers,” says Bennett. For young children, the first layer is the parent or caregiver. Parents should practice active supervision and use physical barriers to prevent drowning, such as a fence that surrounds all sides of a pool.
In addition, Bennett advises parents and caregivers to:
- Make sure kids know how to swim. Studies show that learning to swim reduces a child’s risk of drowning.
- Wear life jackets. Establish a life jacket habit when kids are young, says Bennett. Children, teens and adults should wear life jackets for boating and while swimming in lakes, rivers or the ocean. Young children also need to wear life jackets when playing near deep or moving water and while on docks. Always model safe behavior by wearing a life jacket yourself. Even teens are more likely to wear a life jacket if the adults they’re with are wearing them.
- Swim in areas with lifeguards. Many beaches won’t have lifeguards on duty until late June, so Bennett emphasizes caution. If kids will be swimming where lifeguards aren’t present, parents should call the local sheriff office beforehand to check on current water conditions.
Learn more about water safety and drowning prevention and find resources on Children’s website.