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Health and Wellness: Here’s how to keep your kids safe in the pool this summer

By Joseph Hershkop - Special to the Daily Herald | May 4, 2022

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Pool parties, beach vacations and summer swimming lessons are just around the corner, and that means it’s the perfect time to prepare to keep your children safe around water. Tragically, “more children ages 1-4 die from drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects,” according to the CDC.

I don’t share this troubling statistic to scare you. On the contrary, as a pediatrician and parent, I want you to be armed with knowledge and actionable tips so that you and your children can approach summer swimming with confidence and make happy memories together. Let’s talk about how to prepare your kids, yourself and other adults around you so you can help your kids stay safe in the pool this summer.

Prepare your kids and the swimming environment

According to http://healthychildren.org, “Most drownings in kids 4 and under happen in home swimming pools.” 

Not many of us have home pools here in Utah, but if you do, be sure to install a pool fence that is at least 4-feet high with four sides or a pool cover that a child could not slip under. Consider also getting a pool alarm that goes off whenever the water is disturbed. 

For home pools or other swimming environments, have your child wear a properly fitting life jacket if they don’t yet know how to swim. While water wings help your child to float, they are not considered safety devices.

Something I always recommend is swimming survival courses. These courses teach infants and young children how to self-rescue by floating on their backs and getting their faces out of the water. In my experience, these courses really can help!

Finally, teach your kids to always tell you when they are going to get in the water and to walk – not run – when in the vicinity of the pool. Even if they know how to swim, it’s important to be aware and cautious around the water.

Don’t get a false sense of security

An alarming number of child drownings occur when an adult is nearby, and in about 10% of those cases, “an adult actually watched the child drown without knowing what was happening.” During pool parties with lots of adults and kids, we may assume that there are enough adults around to notice if one of the children starts struggling in the water. However, drowning is usually silent, and the person’s face will bob up and down before they go under; they won’t be able to yell or signal for help.

To avoid a tragic, avoidable situation like this, assign a dedicated water watcher to be in charge of monitoring all children in or near the water at all times, even if there are lifeguards present. 

Healthy Children suggests the following for water watchers: 

  • They should not be under the influence of substances.
  • They should put away their cell phone.
  • They should not participate in other activities.
  • They should switch off with another adult for breaks.

Especially in cases where there are no lifeguards, having a CPR-trained adult ready to help can make a lifesaving difference, too.

Recognize where drowning risks are present

Drowning doesn’t only happen in deep water. Young children “can drown in less than 2 inches (6 centimeters) of water,” according to Sarah K. Romero, M.D., at http://kidshealth.org. “That means drowning can happen in a sink, toilet bowl, fountains, buckets, inflatable pools, or small bodies of standing water around your home, such as ditches filled with rainwater.”

If a child ever goes missing, check the water first. If you don’t have a pool but there happens to be a bucket full of water in the laundry room, that means go there first. Drowning can happen quickly, so every moment counts.

Know that drowning can happen hours later

Have you ever heard the term “dry drowning,” drowning on dry land after inhaling some water? It’s a scary idea for parents, but the truth is that a child who comes out of the water spluttering is not necessarily going to be at risk of drowning the next day. But it is true that symptoms can show up after they’ve left the water.

“When a person is struggling underwater and unable to come up for air, they experience a reflex called a laryngeal spasm,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. “This spasm shuts off the airways and stops oxygen flowing to the brain. … In some cases, a child inhales water before the airways clamp shut.” The resulting lung damage and breathing problems can become serious six to 12 hours later.

So when should you seek medical assistance? If your child inhaled some water in the bath and seems fine, there’s no need to worry. But if they are unable to breathe for a time or they seem ill, take them to be seen by a medical expert so they can ensure your child’s lungs are clear and undamaged. 

Before you and your kids go swimming this summer, give them safety tools, ensure the adults involved are ready to watch the children, and be aware of where and when drowning can happen. By preparing yourself with these safety tips, everyone can be confident and have a great time this summer.

Dr. Joseph Hershkop is a pediatrician at Utah Valley Pediatrics, which serves Utah families in nine locations throughout Utah Valley.

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