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June 20, 2023

Most drownings among young children occur in backyard pools; here's how to keep them safe as they swim

Parents are advised to be within an arm's length of infants and toddlers. Older kids should have an adult nearby at all times

Swimming is a fun – and healthy – activity for children during the summer. To ensure it also is safe, parents should be aware of the potential for drowning and take precautions, health experts say. 

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4, and the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death among kids 5 to 14, trailing only motor vehicle crashes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are more than 4,000 drownings, including those resulting from boating accidents, reported in the U.S. each year. Most drownings among young children occur at home swimming pools. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urges families with young children to make water safety a priority this summer. Its annual report on drownings and submersions, released earlier this month, found that that an average of 371 pool-related drownings were reported each year from 2018 to 2020.

"Drowning is fast, silent, and can happen even when it is not swim time," Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention, told CNN in 2019. "It happens to real families, families with good, attentive parents who never thought it could happen to them." 

For every child that drowns, another seven receive emergency treatment for drowning scares, in which they survive the respiratory impairment caused by being submersed or immersed in the water, according to the CDC. Drowning scares can cause brain damage or permanent disability. 

Delayed drownings can occur when people breathe in or aspirate fluid during near-drowning incidents, according to Jefferson Health. In these cases, people may appear normal for several hours before showing serious signs of respiratory distress. Parents are advised to seek medical attention if their children are experiencing breathing difficulties, chest pain, persistent coughing, extreme fatigue or fussiness, or sudden changes in behavior after a drowning scare. 

Pool safety tips that parents should know

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about drowning is that it's "like what you see in the movies," with loud splashing and plenty of noise to alert people nearby, Alexander Hoehn-Saric, chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, told the Los Angeles Times last year. In reality, drownings often are silent or happen when children aren't expected to be near pools.

Here are some tips to ensure children stay safe while swimming in backyard pools this summer. 

• Children should never swim alone or be left unattended in or near a pool. For infants and toddlers, parents should be in the water and within arm's reach at all times to provide "touch supervision," according to South Philadelphia Pediatrics. With older children, an adult should be in or near the pool at all times to supervise.

• Children should not use mermaid tails or fins, because they make it harder to swim and can lead to drowning, according to Nemours Children's Health. Floaties should not be used without adult supervision, because they do not prevent drowning.

• A pool should be surrounded by a fence with a self-closing, locking gate, according to Nemours Children's Health. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, this is required by law. Pool owners can add alarms to their pool fences and pools to alert them if children are trying to access them without supervision. If a pool fence isn't possible, or mandated by law, experts recommend covering the pool whenever it's not in use to prevent children from using it without supervision. 

• The AAP recommends children receive swim lessons as early as age 1, but urges parents to gauge their children's readiness and to consider their exposure to pools and bodies of water. However, swimming lessons do not "drown proof" a child, the AAP says. Basic swimming skills include the abilities to enter the water, surface, turn around, swim 25 yards, float or tread water, and exit the water. 

• Anyone watching children should know how to perform CPR, which can save a person's life after a drowning incident. The American Red Cross and the American Heart Association host CPR trainings that include instruction on how to perform CPR on adults and children. 

• Parents should not be on their phones when supervising children, but the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends that a phone be kept close to the pool in case of an emergency. 

• Parents and children should stay hydrated to reduce the risk of dehydration, dizziness and fatigue, according to Cleveland Clinic. They also should use sunscreen to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer. 

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