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At What Age Are They “Old Enough” to Swim Unsupervised?

Editor’s Note: In honor of Pediatric Safety’s 4 year bloggiversary, we are publishing 4 of our  favorite posts from the past, one each Friday for four consecutive weeks. This – our 4th and final post – was originally published in April 2011 by Rebecca Wear Robinson, a member of our PedSafe Expert Team. Rebecca has dedicated her life to keeping kids safe around water and it is both an honor and a privilege to work with her. 
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When should you allow your child to go to a pool or beach without adult supervision? How old is ‘old enough’?

Old enough to swim alone?Stefanie (from PediatricSafety.net) alerted me to an interesting article last week that prompted the question – a 14-year old girl saved her 10-year old brother from drowning while the two played at a hotel pool, unsupervised. No charges were filed against the parent because 10 was deemed ‘old enough’ by the local police to be in the pool without adult supervision.

But there was no mention of either child’s swimming abilities. Could the 10-year old swim? Could he truly swim or just paddle a bit? How responsible was the younger brother? Was he a dare-devil or a cautious kid? How deep was the water? Was he tired or jet-lagged? Did he have any physical, emotional or mental issues that would have impaired his abilities or judgment? There are plenty of guidelines that tell us what age and weight our child has to be to change car seats. Laws dictate when our child can drive, drink and vote. But water safety is the great unknown – so many variables that are hard to measure.

So how do parents determine if a child is ‘old enough’ to be unsupervised at a pool or beach? Broward County in Florida is on the cutting edge of water safety and they recommend a minimum age of 12, though some experts believe it should be even higher.

Until national standards are developed, as a parent I’d set 12 as the minimum age (though I’m feeling better with 15), but I’d also look closely at all the other variables. Is your child a truly competent swimmer? (ask their swim teacher, don’t rely on your judgement or your child’s) Who else will be in the pool? Are they competent swimmers or could your child get in trouble with a panic-stricken friend who could pull someone under? How many children? More children = more adrenalin = more potential trouble. Is it a pool or open water? If it’s open water does your child have experience in that particular kind of open water? A river is different from a lake which is different from an ocean.

As parents, if we do our job right our child grow up to self-regulate their behavior and make responsible decisions, but it’s also our job to keep them safe until those skills are in place. Besides, volunteering for pool patrol is a pretty nice way to spend the summer!

I’d love to know your thoughts!

Who is The REAL Lifeguard at Your Kid’s Pool This Summer??

Who is the real lifeguardI was doing the usual mom chit-chat at Scouts while my son worked towards his water safety badge and fielded the inevitable question from the Scout leader, ‘what do you do?’. My answer, “I’m a global activist working to end child drowning. One child drowns every minute.” And then came the typical response, “Wow, I didn’t know it was such an issue, but it is certainly needed, the lifeguards need to do a much better job.” She then related a story about how she and her husband were at a pool with their baby and 3-year old son. She was sitting at the side holding the baby, her husband was in another area, and the 3-year old suddenly went past his depth and was bobbing up and down under the water, drowning. She screamed for the lifeguard, her husband screamed for the lifeguard but also managed to get to their son before any serious injury occurred. She related the story in harrowing detail and emphasized several times how the lifeguard had clearly not been doing his job well since her son had almost drowned in a crowded pool, so she understood why drowning is such a problem.

What is your initial reaction? Quite possibly the same as hers, the fault was with the lifeguard, if he had been paying attention her son never would have almost drowned. It’s an incredibly common belief, but the reality is quite different. These are excellent, diligent and concerned parents, and they believe, just as most people believe, that if you go to a pool or beach with a lifeguard on duty, you and your children will be safe. Yes, that’s true, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, your chance of drowning is reduced to 1 in 18 million. That’s very good odds, even better when you consider that 75% of open water drownings occur when a lifeguard is not present. There is no two ways about it, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, you are much safer, but it’s not just the lifeguard’s job to keep you safe. I do place the blame for that misconception squarely on the shoulders of those of us in the drowning prevention field, we haven’t explained what the true role of a lifeguard is, so let me start now to change how we view lifeguards.

When it comes to water and children, especially young children or non-swimmers, you, the parent, are the first lifeguard on duty. You need to be touch distance from your young or non-swimmer, meaning you can reach out and grab them at any time. Why?

First, a child can drown in 2 minutes in 2 inches of water. Even the best lifeguard, diligently scanning a crowded pool can miss seeing a small child under water, especially if the sun is glinting off the water or there are many people in the pool obscuring visibility under the surface. Plus, most people don’t even recognize someone is drowning since it’s not like in the movies, there is no flailing of arms or screaming. Click here to see what it really looks like – and don’t worry, the boy is rescued.

Second, you don’t want your child to be in a situation where they need to be rescued. You know how hard it can be to spot a small child in a crowded place. Even the fastest lifeguard will take precious seconds to spot the danger and make their way to the victim, and that can be a really frightening few seconds for a child.

Lifeguards are like police and firemen, their job is to prevent accidents by watching for dangerous behavior and educating the public, and to perform rescues when things do go wrong, but it’s not their job to babysit or watch just one child, much less the 100 children in the water on a busy summer afternoon. Think about it, you don’t let your 3-year old walk 3 blocks to preschool just because your town has police whose job is to keep people safe, do you? The good news is that having a lifeguard on duty is like having a firefighter stand in your front yard just in case a fire breaks out. 95% of a lifeguard’s job is preventing an accident in the first place and only 5% is actually rescuing someone in distress. With you on guard, hopefully it won’t ever be your child in distress.

Now that you’re thinking, ‘great, so much for relaxing at the pool this summer’, I have some very good news. Taking a baby or young child to the pool is better than having a personal trainer and Weight Watchers combined if you take advantage of the time in the pool with them. Trust me, I worked off two pregnancies swirling my children around in the water. Next month I hope you’ll check back for my tried-and-true ‘fun for kids, great easy workout for mom’ plan!

Fun water safety games! Survival skills for your child

Swimming lessons are a tradition for many families – once children get to be school age. But don’t wait so long to introduce your children to the water, and don’t think that swimming lessons is the same thing as teaching children to be safe around the water. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that children start in swimming lessons from the age of one. Why? Because drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4 globally. That is terrifying to most parents and many instinctively react by trying to keep their kids away from water until they are older, but the opposite approach will keep your child safer – for their whole life.

Think about it – babies are in water in the womb for their first 9 months. Water is naturally soothing. Do you remember your baby’s expression when they had their first bath? Quizzical at first and then a bit alarmed when they hit the water and it splashed, but then pure joy. Bath-time becomes a treasured ritual. Your baby loves the feeling of your arm around them and your close attention. And, water truly does soothe the savage beast – it’s calming. Children naturally gravitate towards water because it is soothing – and fun, and the source of great joy.

There are a number of water safety things that you can do with your child whenever you are near water, starting in infancy and adding as they get older – and remember, all of these ‘games’ are also fun for children, so it’s a positive experience for both of you.

Bath safety: Start by being positive with your baby in the bath. Toys, songs, allowing them to splash are all important ways of making your baby comfortable in and around water which will lessen their fear later on. It’s especially good for your baby to gradually get used to having water poured over their face – it’s the first step to putting their face in and blowing bubbles. Splashing may make a mess but it also lets a baby control water getting in their face. Talk to your baby, tell them you will always be near them when they are in water – and then do it – never leave your child alone in the tub.

Stories: Use a book like ‘Jabari Makes A Splash’ to teach your child ‘never go near water without a grownup’. You can order the book at Amazon and there are free coloring sheets at the web-site to remind kids of the lessons. Think about hanging up a favorite drawing in the bathroom to remind everyone that a grownup needs to be nearby whenever children are in the tub.

Humpty Dumpty: Start playing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ as soon as your child can sit up. Your child sits on the side of the pool while you hold them, you sing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and when Humpty does a big fall you help your child ‘fall’ forward and then say ‘turn around and hold on!’ Their head doesn’t go under water and at first they probably can’t even grasp the side, so just put their clenched fist on the side of the pool. But over time you graduate to having their head go under and eventually letting go of them, but always, ‘turn around and hold on’.

Monkey Hands: When your child has the physical coordination, have them hold on to the side of the pool with both hands, with feet against the wall and ‘walk’ their hands around the pool. At first they may only be able to go a couple of feet – to the ladder or steps, but over time they’ll want to try going around the whole pool and then pulling themselves out on the side – no ladder or steps!

For Older Kids: Once they get a bit older and have mastered Humpty Dumpty and Monkey Hands, hold your child’s hand and have them push down to touch the bottom of the pool where the pool slopes. Again, it will help them internalize the correct reaction if they fall in – ‘oh yes, I just push up from the bottom and grab the side’. You are teaching them to just react correctly to save themselves.

Then move on to jumping in the deep end and swimming the length of the pool, diving for rings, and ‘coral reef dives’ – swimming between your legs without touching the coral (your legs) or the coral will scrape them. Whatever fun games you can devise that will get your kids comfortable with being in the water and out of their depth will help keep your kids safer.

The idea with all these water safety games is the same – give the child confidence, let them learn their limits in the water gradually, and most importantly, teach them what to do if they ever do fall in the water unexpectedly. You are teaching them to rescue themselves, or at worst, not panic for at least a crucial minute or two until you notice they are missing. And be prepared for each child to progress at a radically different rate. My son was diving and swimming competently at four, my daughter didn’t really connect until seven – but they both love water and understand safety and their own limitations.

Water will be around your child their whole life, and it is a source of great joy and health – help your child to enjoy the water safely!

Where Do Children Drown?

In the U.S., a disproportionate amount of press is given to children drowning in swimming pools, and while it’s true that children ages 1-5 are most likely to drown in swimming pools, it’s not the whole story, and I think it gives parents a false sense of security about water safety. It’s important to know the different dangers, and how to teach your children to navigate the dangers at any age.

So, let’s look at where children are most likely to drown at different ages and what you need to know:

Age: For infants, birth to one year, bathtubs pose the greatest danger. The statistics don’t break it down by months, but I’d guess it’s as soon as your baby can sit upright unsupported that you feel you can dash out of the bathroom to grab clean jammies, answer the phone, or stop a fight between your older kids. Or maybe you think they are safe in that bath seat with the suction cups on the bottom. Or you put the baby in with an older sibling who, you are sure, will raise the alarm if necessary.

Solution: Never, ever leave your child alone in the bathtub until they can swim the length of a 25m pool. Young children reach for toys and fall over. Those seats tip over – never trust them unless you are in the room, or don’t buy them in the first place. As for older siblings, well, they may feel a bit conflicted about your new bundle of joy and give a gentle push or not call if the baby falls over, but then know they did something wrong and not want to get in trouble. It takes one minute of submersion for brain damage to begin and two minutes to die.

Age: 1 to 5 – swimming pools.

Solution: Check out www.poolsafely.gov for great trips on keeping your pool safe. The best rule of all, tell your children to ALWAYS have an adult with them when they go near water. When I had a pool, the rule was no one could even go down the steps to where the fenced pool was without me. Period. This is one limit you need to set and stick to diligently. When your child is in the pool, you need to watch them, constantly. The lifeguard is not there to babysit and since I know you understand how hard it is to keep an eye on one child, imagine a lifeguard trying to watch 200 children. The most important strategy is to talk to your child regularly about how to act around water – no horseplay (dunking isn’t fun, it’s scary and dangerous), always have an adult nearby, and KNOW YOUR LIMITS!

Age: 6 to 12 – open water

Solution: Lifejackets in boats. Again, a non-negotiable rule. But beyond that, again, talk to your child, have them in regular swimming lessons, and help them to KNOW THEIR LIMITS. A tranquil pool is radically different from the wave pool at a water park or the surf off Santa Monica. For complete guidelines, Seattle Children’s Hospital is cutting edge. (insert link: http://www.seattlechildrens.org/classes-community/community-programs/drowning-prevention/open-water-guidelines/ )

Age: 13 to 18 – alcohol

Solution: It’s not just drinking and driving you need to be worried about, it’s drinking and drowning. Alcohol is the greatest contributing factor in drowning deaths for teenagers. By now, hopefully, you’ve been talking to your teenagers about the dangers of mixing alcohol and heavy machinery, you need to add in what happens when you mix with water. And again, teach them to KNOW THEIR LIMITS around water because teenage bravado, alcohol and water are an unforgiving combination.

All fairly dismal statistics, but as you know, I’m all about JOY! in the water. If you are teaching your child, from birth, to navigate water respectfully and safely, while they have fun, you have given them the greatest gift of all, you have taught them to navigate their environment independently and intelligently – and isn’t that what parenting is all about?

6 Layers of Protection That Keep Your Child Safe Around Water

How many layers of protection does the child in this photo have? Coat to prevent against the elements? Check. Securely buckled into an approved car seat? Check. Extra blanket for warmth? Check. A car that has passed stringent safety tests? Check. But the most important layer is the one you can’t see – he is constantly being taught to always buckle up when he is going in a car – by your actions and possibly by your words. We can make our children’s environment safe by using car seats, safety belts, airbags and cars with good crash-test ratings, but unless we teach a child why those things exist and how to use them, we are only doing half the job of protecting them in the future.

‘Layers of protection’ is the buzzword of choice for drowning prevention. It makes sense for exactly the same reasons we teach children to buckle up. Young children are learning self-control and cause-and-effect – our job is to keep them safe while they are learning, but also to teach them how to be safe, and why, at the same time.

To keep your child safe around water, here are the basic layers of protection you need.

  1. Never leave a child unattended in the bathtub. Personally my rule-of-thumb is that they must excel on a swim team or choose to shower instead of bathe before this rule ends.
  2. If you have a pool, fence the pool. Not the yard, the pool. Look at installing self-closing gates, door alarms and pool alarms as an added layer of protection. Safety Turtle is a great portable choice for holidays and trips to Grandma’s.
  3. Always watch your child near water. Assign an adult to be a ‘Water Watcher’ for 10 minutes, give them a whistle, badge or a sign to hold to remind them that their only job is watching the kids, then rotate so that no one loses focus or misses out on the adult fun.
  4. Empty and turn over buckets, wading pools and anything else that can collect water. Think about covering any ornamental pools or bird baths while your children are under 5.
  5. Learn CPR, because drowning happens in under 2 minutes in under 2 inches of water. Accidents do happen. Your local Red Cross or Park District will have classes.
  6. The most important layer though is teaching your child how to be safe around water. Talk to them about why there are fences, why you are watching them, why they need an adult around whenever they are near water – back up your actions with explanations. There is a book about water safety that young children (under 5) love, that can help you with this conversation. It’s called ‘Jabari Makes A Splash’.

With everyone of these actions you are sending two positive messages that will keep your child safe their whole life: Water is fun and you need to act responsibly and safely around water.

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Jabari, which means “brave” in Swahili, is a cute and lovable lion cub. Like most young children, he’s energetic, enthusiastic, curious, and sometimes even a bit mischievous. But Jabari always wants to do the right thing. Children will easily relate to him and want to emulate his positive behavior. Through Jabari’s stories and adventures, children will learn how to be safe in the water. And parents will learn the biggest lesson of all: Always watch your children while they’re in the water. ‘Jabari Makes A Splash’ is available on Amazon.com or at www.jabariofthewater.com.

At What Age Are They “Old Enough” to Swim Unsupervised?

When should you allow your child to go to a pool or beach without adult supervision? How old is ‘old enough’?

Stefanie (from PediatricSafety.net) alerted me to an interesting article last week that prompted the question – a 14-year old girl saved her 10-year old brother from drowning while the two played at a hotel pool, unsupervised. No charges were filed against the parent because 10 was deemed ‘old enough’ by the local police to be in the pool without adult supervision.

But there was no mention of either child’s swimming abilities. Could the 10-year old swim? Could he truly swim or just paddle a bit? How responsible was the younger brother? Was he a dare-devil or a cautious kid? How deep was the water? Was he tired or jet-lagged? Did he have any physical, emotional or mental issues that would have impaired his abilities or judgment? There are plenty of guidelines that tell us what age and weight our child has to be to change car seats. Laws dictate when our child can drive, drink and vote. But water safety is the great unknown – so many variables that are hard to measure.

So how do parents determine if a child is ‘old enough’ to be unsupervised at a pool or beach? Broward County in Florida is on the cutting edge of water safety and they recommend a minimum age of 12, though some experts believe it should be even higher.

Until national standards are developed, as a parent I’d set 12 as the minimum age (though I’m feeling better with 15), but I’d also look closely at all the other variables. Is your child a truly competent swimmer? (ask their swim teacher, don’t rely on your judgement or your child’s) Who else will be in the pool? Are they competent swimmers or could your child get in trouble with a panic-stricken friend who could pull someone under? How many children? More children = more adrenalin = more potential trouble. Is it a pool or open water? If it’s open water does your child have experience in that particular kind of open water? A river is different from a lake which is different from an ocean.

As parents, if we do our job right our child grow up to self-regulate their behavior and make responsible decisions, but it’s also our job to keep them safe until those skills are in place. Besides, volunteering for pool patrol is a pretty nice way to spend the summer!

I’d love to know your thoughts!

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