The Dangers of Drowning: How to Protect Your Children

Our guide provides tips on how to reduce the risk of deadly accidents in pools, natural bodies of water, and even everyday household items.

Last updated: Feb 15th, 2023
The dangers of Drowning

Pool parties, beach vacations, and boating — these fun-in-the-sun activities can spark memories of an exciting day spent with friends and family. But, for parents and guardians, it’s important to remember that water activities can rapidly turn dangerous or deadly. Drowning deaths and submersion injuries happen quickly and quietly, usually within seconds.

In the United States, drowning is the leading cause of death for children age 1-4 and the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for children 5-14. Even when drowning deaths are prevented, many children and infants suffer permanent disabilities due to extended submersion events. Our guidelines can help you ensure your family’s most precious members are protected.

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General safety measures

These steps and precautions can be used in any environment to reduce the risk of drowning.

Consider swimming lessons

Formal swimming lessons can reduce the drowning risk for children by up to 88%. Evidence shows that many children over one benefit from swimming lessons and improved water competency. Children under one aren’t developmentally mature enough to learn to swim. Infants may demonstrate reflexive movements in or under the water but cannot raise their heads to breathe without support. There is no evidence suggesting swimming lessons for children under one are beneficial.

Additionally, lessons for adult family members may reduce drowning risk, as over 60% of children whose parents lack swimming ability are likely to have lower swimming competence.

Learn the Drowning Chain of Survival

The International Life Saving Federation recommends utilizing their Drowning Chain of Survival steps to reduce the mortality rate from drowning. The basic steps are as follows:

  • Prevent drowning
  • Recognize distress
  • Provide flotation
  • Remove from water
  • Provide care

Supervise and eliminate distractions

Adult supervision plays a crucial role in preventing children from drowning. When supervising children with access to water, you should avoid activities that divert your attention or alter your mental clarity, such as consuming drugs or alcohol, texting, reading, or socializing. Seemingly harmless household objects like a bathtub or bucket can pose a significant drowning risk to a young child, so eliminating distractions and maintaining a watchful eye around all bodies of water is critical for your child’s well-being and safety.

Stay close

The supervising adult(s) should always remain in the immediate vicinity of children in or near water. For young or novice swimmers, “touch supervision” (or being within arm’s reach of children near water) is recommended. Drowning can happen suddenly, so if you need to step away, be sure another trusted adult is nearby and ready to take over. Never leave a child alone or under the supervision of another child, even momentarily.

Pool toys or items such as infant bath seats aren’t an adequate replacement for close adult supervision and should not be used in place of safety measures.

Learn CPR

In an emergency, having CPR skills could save someone’s life within the time it takes for paramedics to arrive at the scene. Older children and teenagers can also utilize the life-saving skills from CPR classes. There are many online, in-person, and hybrid options for CPR training. A few organizations that offer courses include local YMCA locations, American Red Cross, and American Heart Association.

Natural bodies of water

The conditions of oceans, ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes can be unpredictable. Strong currents (rip currents), variations in depth, temperature fluctuations, water quality, and underwater hazards are only some of the features that pose safety risks to swimmers in natural bodies of water. The following recommendations can help keep outdoor water activities both fun and safe.

Use safety gear

Children between the ages of 5 and 17 are most likely to drown in natural bodies of water. Wearing a Coast Guard-approved, properly fitted life jacket reduces the risk of drowning in people of all ages and swimming abilities. Having additional rescue equipment, such as a life preserver, can provide an extra layer of security and assist in emergencies. It’s also best to keep a phone on hand to quickly contact emergency personnel if needed.

Floaties, tubes, water wings, and floating pool loungers are considered toys and should never replace a life jacket, life preserver, or other safety equipment.

Check conditions

Underwater dangers, such as rocks, debris, and trash, can pose health and safety risks to swimmers. Carefully examine the area for hazards, such as a shallow depth or dangerous temperature, before entering the water. If the location seems risky, it’s advisable to find a safer and better-maintained spot to swim in.

Preemptively checking the weather forecast to avoid flooding, winds, and thunderstorms is another way to keep you and your children safe. The National Weather Service provides an Experimental Beach Forecast Webpage that you can use to view the rip current risk, UV Index, weather forecast, thunderstorm potential, and other details of several beaches across the United States.

Choose designated swimming areas

Many recreation areas have designated swimming areas with well-maintained beaches, on-duty lifeguards, safety equipment, and proper signage. Remain in these areas and be mindful of any information or warning signs regarding water conditions. Keep a close eye on children and steer them away from hazardous water sources, such as drainage ditches or outfalls.

Go feet first

When jumping or diving into the water after checking for hazards, children and adults should always go feet first. Even in bodies of water perceived as safe, diving head first can result in devastating spinal injuries.

Avoid thin ice

The frigid winter months bring their own drowning risks. It’s important to teach children to avoid walking, playing, or skating on thawing or thin ice. If your family spends time on or around the ice during the winter, be on the lookout for warnings about current ice conditions. By learning ice rescue techniques and having safety equipment on hand, such as a nylon rope to reel in those who have fallen in, you can be better prepared in an emergency.

Pools and other residential bodies of water

87% of drowning deaths in children under five occur at home in pools or hot tubs, followed closely by bathtubs. Buckets, garden ponds, toilets, and wells can also pose a potential drowning risk for infants and young children. Consider these tips to keep your children protected at home.

Install pool fencing

Swimming pools should be fully enclosed and separated from the house and children’s play areas using an unclimbable four-sided fence with a secure, self-latching gate. This type of fencing decreases pool submersion injuries in children by over 50% when compared to unenclosed pools. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offers a detailed guide on properly setting up safety barriers for residential pools.

Add an alarm or rigid pool cover

While pool covers and alarms can’t substitute the protection a four-sided barrier brings, they can add supplemental layers of protection in conjunction with fencing.

Please note that the U.S. CPSC has issued warnings about the dangers of plastic solar pool covers. Children may attempt to walk on these thin covers, fall into the water, and become entangled. If using a pool cover, ensure it’s weight-bearing and cannot be easily moved or removed by children.

Remove temptations

Children are naturally curious, and items such as pool ladders, step stools, and toys can lure them to investigate and potentially fall into the water. Putting these items away behind a locked door or gate after use is ideal.

Keep rescue equipment poolside

Rescue equipment approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, such as life preservers, life jackets, and reach tools, should be kept nearby pools and hot tubs in case of an emergency. Additionally, having a readily available phone can be a lifesaver in a crisis when emergency services are needed.

Watch out for drains

The U.S. CPSC reported 22 incidents of drain entrapment from 2014-2018, consisting of 2 deaths and 9 injuries. All victims were younger than 15. Entrapment is most often caused by a child playing with an open drain and getting a limb or their hair trapped by increasing suction. Using CPSC-approved drain covers, safety vacuum-release systems, or unblockable drains can help mitigate the risk of entrapment.

Supervise all water sources

A young child can drown in as little as one inch of water. Ensure that all bathtubs, buckets, fish tanks, inflatable pools, and other water-filled objects are emptied immediately when not in use. Store smaller objects, like containers and buckets, upside down and out of reach of children.

Keep a close eye on children during bathtime. Afterward, check that the bathtub is fully drained, the toilet lid is shut, and the bathroom door is securely locked. Toilet locks, safety latches, baby gates, and doorknob safety covers can help prevent children from getting where they shouldn’t.



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