Water Safety for Toddlers and Babies

mother teaching baby to swim
Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko

Young children delight in the water. Some people even believe that babies have a special aquatic connection because they recently emerged from their own personal womb-pool. Yet, in a matter of seconds, water can cause grave harm to a child. “Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages one to four,” says Mary O’Donoghue, senior aquatics director of the YMCA of Greater New York. 

This year, it’s more important than ever to be aware of these risks. Bobby Hazen, district manager of Saf-T-Swim on Long Island, notes that during the pandemic there was a spike in the number of backyard pools installed across the country. At the same time, social distancing has kept children out of water-safety and swimming classes—potentially creating a perfect storm for water-related accidents. 

Summer is a good time to review water safety guidelines. Here’s what you need to know in order to keep your little one happy and safe in the water.

Keep children within arm’s reach when near water.

Children who don’t know how to swim, and all children ages 4 and younger, should be within arm’s reach of a caregiver at all times when in or around the water. “A lot of drownings take place within five to ten feet of safety,” O’Donoghue says. 

Don’t rely on floaties for water safety.

Floating devices filled with air or made from foam can be great for water-play but should never be relied on as drowning prevention. “Anything that’s inflatable can always deflate, so it gives a false sense of security,” O’Donoghue explains. 

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Know what drowning looks like.

Many of us imagine a drowning person frantically thrashing around in the water, but the reality is quite different—and easy to miss. Drowning is silent, and “doesn’t look anything like you think it’s going to,” Hazen says. A child’s arms may come in and out of the water before he goes under, but once he’s down, and sinking, you won’t see much more than the top of his head beneath the surface, and you won’t hear a thing. 

Designate an adult to watch little ones in the water. 

Ensure that at least one adult has eyes on the water at all times by taking turns being a designated water-watcher at the pool, beach, or lake. The YMCA even has a water-watcher’s badge you can print out and laminate. The water-watcher should refrain from drinking alcohol before or during their shift, and steer clear of other distractions, like a phone, as well. 

Put protections in place around your pool.

There is no replacement for constant supervision, but the following safeguards should still be put into place. Pools should be properly fenced in, easily viewable from the outside, and covered when not in use. You can also get an alarm for your house door or one that floats in or sits below the water. Purchase drain covers, install vacuum release systems, or employ multiple drains to prevent kids’ hair or clothing from getting sucked in. Remove toys from the pool after use so kids won’t be tempted to jump in and get them. 

Watch out for water hazards for kids inside your home. 

Anything that holds liquid—not just the pool—can be dangerous. “Bathtubs, buckets, toilets—all the things that we kind of overlook in the house,” O’Donoghue says. Children can drown in mere inches of water, so make sure to empty any kiddie pools after use and watch out for rainwater collecting in buckets or other outdoor containers. Drain the tub after a bath, use locks for toilet lids, and make it a habit to keep the bathroom door closed so that small children cannot enter on their own.  

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Enroll your child in swim lessons. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children enroll in swimming lessons by age 4, and says children can learn to swim as young as 1 year. As a parent, you are the best judge of when your child is ready for swim lessons.

Parent-and-child swim lessons for infants are widely available. The YMCA of Greater New York has classes for children as young as 6 months, and Saf-T-Swim takes students at just 2 months old. These classes usually focus on getting children comfortable in the water and teaching water safety. For example, practicing blowing bubbles is a great first skill. “When you’re blowing bubbles,” O’Donoghue explains, “you’re exhaling, water can’t come into your nose or mouth.” 

Remember, however, that swimming lessons do not make your child drown-proof. Even if your child knows how to swim, they may not be able to save themselves in the event of an emergency. The ocean, for example, is “a completely different animal than being in a pool,” Hazen notes, and a designated water-watcher should be on duty at all times. 

Teach your children never to enter the water without an adult.

Both O’Donoghue and Hazen stress that one of the most important things you can teach your child is to never get in the water—pool, sea, or bathtub—without an adult present. Just as we teach children to hold a grown-up’s hand when crossing the street, or to wear a seatbelt in a car, we want them to grow accustomed to the habit of waiting for an adult before entering the water. 

Marie Holmes has written for Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, the Washington Post, and other publications. She lives in Upper Manhattan with her wife and their two children.

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