5 Water Tips to Keep Your Kids Safe and Cool This Summer

Two little boys play in an inflatable pool.

If your kids are like my kids, they LOVE the water. It takes extra caution and thoughtfulness to keep them safe. I can personally say that there is little more painfully tragic than drowning. I hope to provide some tips to keep the water fun this summer 

Tip #1: Constant Eyes

The most important principle of water safety is . . . YOU! It’s the swimming version of Smoky the Bear’s warning: “Only YOU can keep your children safe in the water.” Most drowning deaths occur with adults within just a few yards of the victim, but not watching. The risk actually increases as the number of adults around the water increases because each adult thinks someone else is watching the water!

Commit to yourself that when your children are in the water, you’re watching them with constant eyes. Hey, they’re fun to watch anyway! It’s even better if you’re right in the water with them. Lifeguards are wonderful. But they just can’t ever be as good as your constant eyes can be.

In the time it takes to get a towel, they can be submerged. In the time it takes to answer your phone, they can lose consciousness. In the time it takes to sign for a package at your door, they can have brain damage. Your little ones are precious. If you have to leave the water, just take them with you! Your clothes will dry and their crying will calm, I promise.

Tip #2: Fence it, Lock it, Drain it, Shut it 

Sometimes the most dangerous water is the water you’re not thinking about. There was an irrigation canal that ran through our old backyard. Of course, our kids couldn’t get enough time in it — making boats and building small dams. For a while, the gate to the canal was open most of the time, without a lock. And any time a child wasn’t visible at first glance around the yard, I would run straight for the irrigation ditch. It seems silly now that I didn’t lock the gate sooner! The lock was inconvenient sometimes, but I never regretted it.

It is Utah law that a swimming pool or hot tub must be enclosed by barriers on all sides. Unfortunately, the law allows one of the “barriers” to be home. That means that a back door can be an open gate for a toddler to wander into inviting water. I would recommend that all open water be completely toddler-proof.

Another important reminder is to never leave standing water unattended. This includes buckets of water for cleaning, wading pools, bathtubs, or even large puddles. Fence it, lock it, drain it, shut it. You won’t regret it.

Tip #3: Teach them to swim, but don’t trust them

My boy has really taken to swimming lessons this year. He has turned into a little fish in the water. But I’ve found that his newfound courage and excitement really makes him MORE dangerous in the water than he was when he relied on an adult so much. Swimming lessons make drowning less likely, but they do not replace your careful supervision.

At what age should I start my child in swimming lessons? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that most children start swimming lessons at the age of 4 because that’s the time that they can reliably hold their breath. Between ages 1-4, the AAP says you can start lessons if the child is “ready to learn how to swim.”

What about those infant swimming lessons?  Have you seen those videos of tiny babies floating to the top of the water on their backs? It’s pretty remarkable and seems really gutsy. The AAP is clear that swimming lessons for children less than 1 are for parent-child bonding/enjoyment only and cannot be relied upon for drowning prevention.

It is so very important that swim safety is a part of every swimming lesson.  You need to teach your child to swim and to have a healthy fear of the water at the same time. Teach them to stay away from water without an adult present. Teach them how to climb out of the pool. Teach them to listen carefully to the swim instructor. Water safety lessons are just as useful as swimming lessons in preventing drowning.

Tip #4: Natural Water is Dangerous Water

As much fun as natural water can be, it’s important to keep in mind that it comes with some built-in dangers. Natural water is unpredictable. Children who are confident in a swimming pool can quickly find themselves in a dangerous spot due to unseen hazards like swift currents, underwater rock formations, cold temperatures, unexpectedly deep water, or overhanging tree branches. 

The rule of constant eyes is even more important when you’re enjoying natural water. YOU get to decide if a water feature is off-limits, no matter what age your child is. When you’re on a boat, canoe, tube, etc. please keep all children in life jackets that fit well. Never substitute flotation toys (“floaties”) for a life jacket! They are never equivalent.

If there are smaller children in life jackets, the adults should probably be wearing one too. That way if there’s an emergency they can actually be helpful. Many boating accidents occur when alcohol is mixed with boating. Don’t do it!

Tip #5: Protect Their Skin! 

There is nothing more fun than a day in the sun, except for when you or your child come away with a bad sunburn. The bad news is that the younger the child at the time of the first sunburn and the more frequently burns occur, the higher the likelihood of skin cancer later in life. It is crucial to protect their skin from the sun.

What about very young children? You may have heard that sunscreen is not safe for babies. The concern about sunscreen in younger children is that babies’ skin is absorbent and irritates easily. Being sunburned is worse than any sunscreen toxicity.

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommends avoiding sun exposure for babies by keeping them in the shade and using protective clothing and hats. It’s also a good idea to avoid the sun between 10 AM and 4 PM when the sun’s rays are the most damaging. But, if you cannot avoid sun exposure to their skin, they say to use the minimal amount of sunscreen possible. Sunscreens that use a Zinc Oxide base can be less irritating, but they don’t rub into the skin, making your child look like a cute little ghost.

Remember to apply the sunscreen 15 minutes before exposure, reapply every 2 hours and after any swimming, and use more sunscreen on the sand, water, and snow (the sun’s rays reflect). Spray sunscreen is great if you make sure you are liberal with the application and avoid spraying the face to help prevent children from breathing it in.

To review:

  1. Constant Eyes
  2. Fence it, Lock it, Drain it, Shut it
  3. Teach Them to Swim 
  4. Natural Water is Dangerous Water
  5. Protect Their Skin!
Mitch Peterson, M.D.

Mitch Peterson, M.D.

Mitch practices pediatrics in our Riverton office.

a happy father receives a kiss from his son

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