Before you head to the beach or lake this summer, take steps to keep your family safe in and around the water. Drowning is a leading cause of death in toddlers and young children. Teens have the second-highest drowning rate of any age group.

Experts recommend layers of protection for water safety. Drowning can’t be prevented by a single strategy. Here are some things you need to do while still on dry land:

Sign Up for Swimming Lessons

Recognize Water Safety Month this May by scheduling swimming lessons for family members who are not strong swimmers. Knowing how to swim is a crucial layer of protection. Formal swimming lessons reduce a young child’s risk of drowning.

Children should be able to get in and out of the water by themselves, tread water for several minutes, float on their back and swim at least 25 yards. Knowing how to swim is critically important but recognize that this skill alone does not “drown proof” your child.

Choose a nationally recognized learn-to-swim program with certified instructors. Lifeguards on duty during the lessons should be certified in CPR and first aid. Look for a program that includes water survival skills in addition to swimming techniques. The course should teach children what to do if they fall into the water with their clothes on. Self-rescue is an important water survival skill. Another is what to do if you see a swimmer in distress.

Acquire Proper Life Jackets

Make sure every family member has a life jacket that fits properly. Check a life jacket for approval by the U.S. Coast Guard. Make sure it fits without being too loose. If a child’s life jacket is too big, she can slide out of it if she falls into the water. Don’t use blow-up
water wings as a life jacket, as they aren’t safe.

Children should wear a life jacket at all times around open bodies of water, such as lakes and ponds. Everyone should wear a life jacket when in a boat. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that most boating deaths are caused by drowning. About 9 out of 10 victims were not wearing a life jacket.

Discuss life jacket use with your family ahead of time. Explain the family rules for life jacket use; make sure everyone knows that wearing one when needed is not up for negotiation. Proper life jacket use is an important layer of protection.


Designate Water Watchers

Talk to other adults who will be visiting the beach or lake with your family about designating a “Water Watcher.” All children, regardless of their swimming abilities, need careful monitoring in and around the water. Even if a lifeguard is on duty, the child still needs a Water Watcher. Create a schedule to share this responsibility. This will help avoid Water Watcher fatigue. Once onsite, frequently confirm who is on duty. A phrase you don’t want to hear is “but I thought you were watching her!”

For beginning swimmers and young children, the Water Watcher should be in the water with the children. Stay at close range, within an arm’s length. Someone must be ready to pull a child up from under the water immediately
if needed.

For competent swimmers and older children, the Water Watcher can observe from outside the water. This person must avoid distractions, such as cell phone use, reading or carrying on conversations. The total focus must be on watching swimmers in the water.

When children are around the water but not swimming, someone should watch them carefully to make sure they don’t reenter the water. The Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that almost 70% of children younger than 5 years old weren’t supposed to be in the water at the time of the drowning.

Have a Water Safety Talk With Your Teen

The risk of drowning increases for teens, especially boys. This age group is more likely to make  poor decisions when swimming or boating. They often overestimate their swimming ability or take unnecessary risks to impress their peers. Alcohol or drug use is sometimes a factor. Here are some important talking points:

  • Never swim alone. Even when a lifeguard is present, use the buddy system.
  • Don’t dive or jump into the water unless you know how deep the water is.
  • Avoid underwater breath-holding activities and games.
  • Know what to do if caught in a rip current. Don’t try to fight it. Swim parallel to the shore, then swim back to land at an angle.
  • Don’t drink or use drugs in and around the water. Alcohol and drug use increase the risk of accidents.
  • If you see a swimmer in distress, don’t jump in to rescue them. Throw them a life jacket or extend a pole to pull them to safety.

Keep these strategies in mind for a safe swimming season this summer.


Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin.

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