Water safety 101: Keeping your kids safe in and around water

'Touch supervision,' swim lessons recommended for younger kids

In the heat of the summer, many people turn to the water to stay cool — from lakes and rivers to backyard and neighborhood pools. As common as water activities are, there are still some misconceptions about water safety and how to best keep your kids and grandkids safe around water.

Drowning is, in fact, the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in children.

On average, almost 3,600 people drown each year in the United States, or about 10 deaths per day, according to Dr. Nadia Juneja, an emergency medicine physician at East Central Iowa Acute Care who practices at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

“For every child or adult who dies from drowning, many more receive emergency department care for non-fatal submersion injuries,” she said.

That’s why learning to stay safe in and on the water is so crucial.

Leah Deeds is a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Coralville Lake, where her team teaches the public about water safety and also runs a free life vest loaner program.

“We loan out life vests to anyone who needs one, and we make sure they get a vest that fits properly,” Deeds said. “For boating, we’d love for everyone to wear life vests, but children are required to wear them.

“I always tell parents — think about it. If your child is wearing a life jacket, but you’re not, if you get into an accident and your child pops back up to the surface with their life vest, but you don’t, would they know what to do?

“Accidents are unexpected, so you have to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Deeds advises adults to also not be too confident about their own abilities.

“Children and adults both need to know their limits,” she said. “Just because there’s a line marked, doesn’t mean you have to swim out to it. No one expects accidents to happen.”


Supervision around water is critical

Juneja, the emergency room physician, cites research showing that formal swimming lessons reduce the risk of drowning for children between 1 and 4 years of age.

“However,” she said, “this doesn’t mitigate the need for close supervision.”

Even if your child knows how to swim, that’s not enough to ensure he or she will be safe. Never leave young children unattended in or around water, she said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “touch supervision” for preschoolers, “meaning you’re close enough to reach the child at all times,” Juneja said.

“Adults supervising young children also should not be distracted by other activities like reading on their phone or playing games, due to the quick and quiet nature of drowning,” she said.

Silent death

“On television, we see people yelling and screaming for help. But someone who truly needs help gets really quiet,” Deeds said. “They try to climb out of water, and they’re often so busy trying to breathe that they don’t have time to yell for help.

“Drowning often looks like someone bobbing up and down. At that point, it’s best to reach out to someone who’s in the water with a towel, a noodle, an oar or something they can grab onto long enough to catch their breath and be pulled to safety.

“In the movies, drowning is often portrayed as dramatic, in real life, it can take very small amounts of water for a child to drown,” she said. “And seconds matter to avoid a fatal outcome.


“That’s why I recommend learning CPR — bystanders starting CPR while waiting for help to arrive can save lives.”

Other risks

Juneja noted, too, that drowning is not the only water safety concern. “Swimming in water is not without risk,” she said. “Inhaling or aspirating water can lead to conditions such as aspiration pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs), pneumonia and other things. If a child has breathing difficulties after swimming, they should be taken to the emergency department for evaluation.”

It’s good to remember, too, that accidents can happen around the home.

“While it is more obvious to practice water safety around large bodies of water, it is important for parents to realize that for small children, bathtubs, large water buckets and other sources also carry risk and require supervision,” Juneja said.

Be there for them

Water is a wonderful place to stay cool, stay active and enjoy the outdoors — if you take proper precautions.

“The biggest thing is supervision,” Deeds said. “Just make sure your child is comfortable in the water and that you’re there for them.”

Learn more online

• U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:†

• Bobber, the Water Safety Dog:,†offers games†and cartoons to teach young children about water safety

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