Author: Sara Rider
Summertime in Texas means lots of sunshine, lots of hot days and an ongoing search for ways to beat the heat. In Central Texas, we’re blessed with many backyard pools, public pools, rivers and lakes. So it’s not surprising that families take to the water as temperatures soar. But the cool water comes with a risk. Last year in Texas, 24 children drowned and many more were victims of near-drowning.
“Drowning is the leading cause of death for kids under age five,” reports Stephanie Hebert, M.Ed., CHES, the injury prevention coordinator at Dell Children’s and the Safe Kids Austin coordinator. “In Central Texas last year, we saw 43 drownings or near-drownings.”
According to Safe Kids USA, drowning is the third leading cause of injury-related death among children ages 14 and under. Within this group, children under the age of five account for 76 percent of fatalities. In addition to the loss of life from drowning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than half of near-drowning victims that are treated in emergency departments can require hospitalization. The long-term effects of a near-drowning can include severe brain damage says the CDC, which may result in long-term disabilities.
Who’s at risk?
According to the CDC, children ages one to four have the highest drowning rates. Nearly 80 percent of the children who drown are male. The most common place for a drowning to occur for kids between the ages of one and four is a swimming pool. Safe Kids USA says that African-American children ages five to 14 have a drowning rate three times higher than that of Caucasian children. Two-thirds of deaths occur between May and August, usually on weekends.
Steps to prevention
In trying to prevent a child from drowning, parents must first remember that although we may focus a lot of our attention on swimming pools and lakes, these aren’t the only places where children are at risk.
“Drowning can happen in any amount of water, indoors or outdoors,” cautions Hebert. “So when we talk about water safety, we are talking about a toilet, a bathtub, a bucket of water. If you think about a toddler or one-year old who is still kind of unstable when walking, they can easily fall head first into a bucket of water.”
To combat these many different potential threats, Hebert recommends “layers of protection” – taking multiple precautions to help keep children safe.
“If you’ve ever been at a party or even a family outing where there are several adults and several kids, as a parent, we tend to think, ‘there are lots of adults here, so it’s fine.’ But if you don’t appoint someone to be the designated ‘water watcher,’ everyone assumes everyone else is watching the kids,” explains Hebert.
But too often, no one is watching. In a recent national study of drowning-related incidents, a parent or caregiver claimed to be supervising the child in nine out of 10 drowning deaths. “If I’m appointed the water watcher, that means I’m in charge of the kids, making active eye contact with them. I have a tag or a lanyard, or something to designate that I’m the water watcher. If I need to walk away, I hand it to another adult to make sure that they now know they are the water watcher.”
Swimming skills and life jackets
Other steps to reduce the risk of drowning include making sure your child learns to swim, and that parents do as well. “We always encourage that every child take swim lessons,” says Hebert, “and that adults do, too, because if you can’t swim, it’s hard to be in the water and supervise your child.” But while swimming is important, Hebert advices parents not to “rely on swim lessons as a prevention – it’s one in the layer of preventive methods. But supervision is the key.”
Adults also need to learn infant and child CPR. And children should not rely on inflatables or non-Coast Guard-approved life jackets. Water wings or floaties, swimsuits with a life jacket or inflatable ring built-in are not considered life-saving devices and should not be relied upon as such. Also on the list of things that shouldn’t be relied on are pool noodles, floats and inner tubes.
“But the key is supervision,” emphasizes Hebert. “Whether it’s in the bathtub, a kiddie pool in your backyard or a lake, children need to be actively supervised.”
Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.
Access and supervision
Hebert emphasizes that the first step is to “keep kids from getting to the water unsupervised.” This means fences and gates around pools and “making sure if you have a pool in your backyard that you have some sort of alarm so that children don’t get around the pool without you knowing it.”
Other precautions include keeping buckets empty and installing a lock on the toilet lid. Hebert recommends “touch supervision,” explaining, “If you have children in water, you need to be able to reach out and touch them.”
Safe Kids Austin has an initiative called “water watchers,” where an adult is designated to watch all of the children at an event when they are around water.