Home Safety Guide: Drowning Prevention and Swim Safety for Kids

Safety Guide: Drowning Prevention and Swim Safety for Kids



As the summer kicks off, families are all headed to cool off and have a great time in the water. That means water safety is more important than ever--especially for kids, whose swimming skills are not as strong as their parents.

Here’s everything parents need to know to ensure their kids stay safe in the water.

Water Risks

The beach or swimming pool is a ton of fun for kids. Plus, because swimming is low-impact and highly modifiable, swimming is a safe way to exercise for people of all ages.

Unfortunately, parents know that it also comes with some safety risks.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, drowning is a major public health issue worldwide. In fact, drowning is one of the top five causes of death in people aged one to fourteen in 48 of 85 countries.



Worse, one in five people who die of drowning are aged 14 and under. Unfortunately, this should not come as a surprise--more than half of children aged 4 to 17 cannot perform the basic water safety skills needed to save their lives, even though 85% of Americans say they can swim.

According to the American Red Cross, the five basic swimming safety skills are:

  1. Step or jump into water over your head
  2. Return to the surface to float or tread water for one minute
  3. Turn in a full circle and find an exit
  4. Swim 25 yards to an exit without pausing
  5. Exit from the water, including exiting without a ladder

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning can be generally defined as death by suffocation due to immersion in water. This may be “wet” drowning (when the victim inhales water) or “dry” drowning (a less common condition where the airway closes due to spasms induced by water).

Regardless of the type, drowning can happen in 20 to 60 seconds in less than 1 inch of water, which makes everything from sinks to swimming pools potentially dangerous for babies and children.

In the United States, 80% of drowning victims are male. Children between the ages of one to four have the highest drowning rates--in fact, drowning is responsible for more deaths in this age group than any other cause except birth defects.

The highest drowning rates are seen in white male children from infancy to the age of four, followed by Native American and Alaskan Native children from infancy to the age of four and African American male adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19. However, these rates are derived from the whole population--if rates were determined by participation in water-based activities, white children would have a much higher drowning rate due to access to water-based activities.

Childhood Drowning Statistics

Statistics of Special Needs Kids

Other Risks When Swimming

Drowning remains the highest risk for children in the water, but it’s far from the only danger that children face. Depending on the swimming environment, there are a whole plethora of potential swimming safety risks, even in comparatively safe swimming environments.

Remember, just like drowning can happen in the blink of an eye, other swimming risks don’t need much time to become dangerous. Even a brief risk can result in a serious injury.

Exposure to Dangerous Wildlife

Swimming with wildlife can feel natural and exciting. Problem is, wildlife is...well, wild. And that introduces its own set of risks.

Take birds, for instance. You might not associate birds with swimming pools (other than ducks, anyway) but in reality, many types of birds are attracted to swimming pools. This is for the same reason they like birdbaths--to them, it’s a giant bathtub. Unfortunately, this means swimmers may come into contact with bird droppings, and there are several germs in bird droppings that can infect humans.

That said, it’s good to keep in mind the national park rule: it’s illegal to approach, harass, or feed any type of animal in national parks, no matter how small or apparently harmless. Your kids might think that animal is cute, but the animal thinks your kids are threatening.

Exposure to Hidden Jagged Rocks, Broken Glass, etc

When swimming in ponds, rivers, lakes, and the ocean, you get the joy of experiencing natural water. Unfortunately, natural water also means a natural environment--including sharp rocks.

This risk is especially tricky because you can’t always see rocks in the water. You may not be able to tell that they’re sharp on a first pass, either, at least until you slip. In shallow water, it’s quite easy to cut yourself accidentally.

The other problem with cuts on rocks or broken glass is germs. Unlike pools, rivers, ponds, lakes, and the ocean all come with their own micro-ecosystem.

Getting Caught in a Riptide

A rip current is a powerful, fast-moving channel of water. These currents move at speeds of eight feet per second (faster than an Olympic swimmer) and are prevalent all along the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the United States.

A riptide is a specific type of rip current associated with the swift movement of tidal water through inlets and the mouths of harbors, embayments, and estuaries.

When caught in a rip current, many swimmers panic and try to swim straight back to shore. This is actually one of the worst things you can do--you can’t outpace a rip current, and trying to fight it puts you at risk of drowning from fatigue. Instead, you should swim parallel to shore and approach land at a gradual angle.

Jellyfish Stings

The ocean is packed with all manner of marine life. And when you visit the ocean, you’re likely to encounter one in particular: jellyfish. Unfortunately for kids, jellyfish aren’t as much fun in real life as they are in cartoons.

Jellyfish are elegant but surprisingly simple critters. They don’t have brains, blood, or even hearts--only 5% of a jellyfish is solid matter, the rest is just water. Even so, jellyfish have a simple but elegant protective system: their tentacles, which are equipped with stingers.

Jellyfish don’t attack humans--jellyfish can only drift in water with limited control over its movements. Stings happen when you run into a stinger accidentally. The severity of the sting depends on:

  • The jellyfish species
  • The penetrating power of the nematocyst
  • The thickness of the stung skin
  • The victim’s susceptibility to venom

Most jellyfish stings aren’t lethal, but they can be quite painful.

Washed Out by Currents and Tides

The ocean might look like a single, ebbing and flowing body, but that’s not actually the case. Ocean water is always on the move, affecting the climate and local ecosystem.

You’re probably already familiar with the ocean tides. This is one of the most reliable phenomena in the entire world, long-period waves that move through the oceans in response to the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Boaters are quite familiar with getting marooned in response to the retreating tide.

Ocean currents are abiotic features of the environment, continuous and directed movements of ocean water. Picture a person trying to walk in a straight line on a carousel--ocean currents are the same basic idea, deflected from a straight line of travel as they move across the Earth.

As with rip currents, you have to remember one thing: the ocean is more powerful than you are. You can’t try to fight it. Instead, plan around the tides and try to approach the shore at a gradual angle instead of fighting the current straight on.

Exposure to Severe Water Temperatures

Warm air and warm water are not the same things. A hot summer day is no predictor of water temperature--just think of the last time you set foot in a lake only to find the water was bitterly cold.

And while 50 degrees may not sound very cold, it can easily become dangerous. Cold water drains body heat four times faster than cold air, and plunging into cold water creates a significant shock to your system.

Exposure to Pool Chemicals

Your kids might not know how many chemicals you pour into the pool, but you do. The problem is that those pool chlorinating agents can be just as dangerous for swimmers as bacteria if you’re not careful. That’s why pool owners have to carefully maintain their chlorine balance--high enough to kill recreational water illnesses and bacteria, but low enough not to harm humans.


Water Safety Basics

Before you head out for a fun day on the water, there are some basic water safety tips all parents should know.

First and foremost, you should always supervise your kids. Kids must always be watched anytime they are around water, whether that’s an ornamental fish pond or the ocean. Even if your kids have good swimming skills, always keep a careful eye on them.

This is especially important for toddlers, who are at the highest risk of drowning for any age group. They don’t tend to yell or splash, and they sink fast.

You should also have layers of protection to keep your kids safe, i.e. fences to keep kids away from the water when they’re not swimming, alarms to let you know when kids pass to the pool area, and protective gear like life vests when they actually go in the water.

Whatever you do, don’t assume that someone else is watching. Many drownings happen at pool parties because every adult assumes someone else is watching the water. Have a plan with the other adults so that one or two people have explicitly stated responsibilities to keep an eye on the kids.

First Aid

Parents should also know basic first aid in case something goes wrong.

The biggest of these is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), an emergency lifesaving procedure used when someone’s breathing or heartbeat stops, which makes it incredibly useful in near-drownings.

However, you should also understand basic first aid techniques, rescue skills--including self-rescue skills--and emergency response skills.

Recognizing an Emergency

There are three stages of a water emergency

  • Distressed swimmers
  • Active drowning victims
  • Passive drowning victims

Distressed swimmers are not drowning, but they are in trouble. There could be any number of reasons for this, from getting caught in a rip current to injury. Distressed swimmers are struggling in the water and will grab onto anything floating around them.

Active drowning victims are struggling to breathe and stay above water. This doesn’t look like a movie--an active drowning victim is struggling to keep their mouth above water and will not be able to cry for help. Because of this, drowning happens quietly, and it doesn’t look like your mental image of drowning from the movies. It looks like a swimmer struggling to stay vertical, with their arms out and their head tilted up at the surface of the water or tipping below the surface.

Passive drowning victims are no longer struggling. Their face or head will be submerged in water, and they will not be breathing. They may float facedown on the surface of the water, or they may be completely submerged.

In all cases, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Except in rare circumstances, drowning victims cannot call for help--speech is a secondary function that is impossible until breathing is achieved
  • Drowning victims cannot wave their arms
  • In the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning victims cannot control their own arm movements
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, a drowning victim’s body remains upright in the water with no evidence of a supporting kick

Before you dive in, assess the situation. Ask a lifeguard for help if one is present. If not, assess whether you can respond safely. Do not enter the water if it’s above your skill level, and always call 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency.


If drowning happens, CPR is your best tool. Do not attempt to perform CPR unless you have been trained--this can inflict serious harm.

There are three parts of CPR, summarized as CAB:

  • Compressions: CPR begins with 30 chest compressions, followed by two rescue breaths
  • Airway: After 30 compressions, check the person’s airway to make sure it is open
  • Breathing: rescue breaths start after 30 chest compressions when the airway is open

In rescue breathing, you’re breathing for the victim by forcing air into their lungs.

If you’re a fan of the Bee Gees, you’re in luck: the 1977 disco hit “Stayin’ Alive” has the perfect rhythm for CPR. Medical students are taught to perform CPR using the song.

Please keep in mind that CPR for babies and children is different than adults--babies should receive chest compressions with two fingers, but for children, you would use the heel of your hand.

Jellyfish Stings

Jellyfish stings are not generally lethal, but they are quite painful. Of course, a screaming baby or child doesn’t know that--they just know that it really, really hurts.

If a child is stung, immediately remove them from the water and rinse the sting with vinegar. This prevents the stinger from firing for some types of stings (including dangerous varieties like box jellyfish). Do not rinse with fresh water or sea water--this can actually make the sting worse. Keep a small bottle of vinegar in your beach bag just in case.

Keep tweezers in your bag to remove jellyfish tentacles, but do not rub the sting, do not scrape the area with a credit card, and do not attempt to remove the stinger. Don’t apply ice either--a hot shower or soak can actually lessen the pain.

Call an ambulance immediately if your child:

  • Has stings over a large part of the body
  • Has stings on the eye or mouth
  • Has trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Has a swollen tongue, swollen lips, or change in voice
  • Has severe pain
  • Is dizzy, nauseous, or vomiting
  • Has a headache
  • Has muscle spasms
  • May have been stung by a dangerous jellyfish

Most beaches warn visitors about jellyfish. Pay attention for signs and make sure you have supplies.


The best way to keep everyone safe is to stop unsafe situations from happening in the first place. So when it comes to safety, prevention is your best defense.


Indoors, your biggest hazard area is the bathroom. This includes the bathtub, sink, and toilet.


Bathroom (Do’s and Don’ts)

The first rule of safety is the same as any pool or lake: never leave your child unattended. Even a child that seems well-propped can slip. Children can take unsupervised baths starting at 6 or 7, depending on their maturity.

You should also pay careful attention to water temperature. A child’s skin is thinner and more sensitive than an adult’s, and a baby’s skin is even more so. For kids younger than five, just three seconds of exposure to 60-degree tap water can cause a third-degree burn.

Always keep water at 49 degrees Fahrenheit. You can test it on your wrist or use a thermometer for greater precision.

Also, while the bathtub is the greatest threat, pay attention to the sink and toilet.

Bathtubs (Do’s and Don’ts)

With bathtubs, you have two concerns: slipping and temperature.

Children should not take baths unsupervised, nor should they be allowed to play in the tub unsupervised with or without water. To keep kids safe, use anti-slip strips on your tub.

Always test the water temperature before putting a child inside it. Test this on your wrist or with a thermometer.


Outdoors, you’re dealing with two major concerns: pools and natural bodies of water.



Pool (Do’s and Don’ts)

First and foremost, make sure that your pool is fenced in. This will keep children out of the pool area and help slow them down. Fences should be at least four feet tall with slats less than four inches apart and no foot or handrails for kids to climb on. Gates should be self-latching and self-closing and at least four and a half feet above the ground.

If you have a pool, you should have firm pool rules. These are a lot like the rules at a public pool: no pushing, no running, no diving in areas not marked for diving, and get out of the pool immediately at the first sign of bad weather.

Natural Bodies of Water (i.e. lakes, rivers, beach)

In natural bodies of water, you’re now dealing with fresh complications from rocks to snakes.

Children should always wear foot protection, such as water shoes. This will protect their feet from rocks and glass.

Since you’re now in the wild, pay careful attention for any local wildlife. Warn your kids about any potential critters and remind them to leave those critters alone, and keep an eye out for animals just in case.

Otherwise, the rules in natural bodies of water are a lot like pools, namely the number one rule: never, ever leave children unattended.


As a parent, you’re responsible for your child’s safety. One of the best things you can do is sign up for safety classes and sign your children up for classes that will help them enjoy the water safely.

For Parents

For parents, you have two class priorities: swimming lessons and first aid classes.

You won’t be in any shape to help your child if you don’t have the right swimming skills to get you out of a situation. The good news is that swim classes can be a fun family outing. You can find swim lessons through the Red Cross, as well as first aid lessons and CPR training.

For Kids

For kids of any age, the most important lessons by far are swimming lessons. Older children can also take lifeguard classes, first aid training, and CPR training as they’re interested, but the first priority is swimming lessons.

Swimming Lessons

Children can actually start swimming lessons as early as one year old. This can go a long way to help your child feel comfortable in the water and introduce basic swimming skills.
By their fourth birthday, most children are ready for swimming lessons. They can learn the basic swimming survival skills at this age, including treading water, floating, and finding an exit. By the age of five or six, most children can master the front crawl. Your child can move into more advanced swimming and different strokes based on their interest and skill level, but you should always ensure your child has the basic swimming skills down pat.


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