Just Keep Swimming, Safely


Growing up at the Jersey shore it was unfortunately not uncommon to hear about children and adults drowning. It was often blamed on many things, such as a strong rip current, drinking alcohol, or swimming without a lifeguard. Sometimes the victim was even an experienced swimmer. Once it was my classmate. I was in eighth grade when one of my friends was swept out to sea while swimming out to save another classmate. The memory of this friend and the tragic early loss of his life is something I reflect on often, but always when I am thinking about water safety.

As a resident in the Emergency Department or Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) I knew that each summer there would undoubtedly be patients being treated for complications of their drowning. Some would die, some would have life-threatening complications, and most would be forever changed. The location of their drownings would vary: pool, bathtub, ocean, lake. The stories though almost always started with “I just looked away for a second.” A life changing second.

Now in my primary care practice, I talk about drowning risks with parents, whether it is with infant parents and bathtub safety, toddlers and safe-guarding pools, or school-aged children and swimming safety. It is a topic I hope parents realize how important it is, even when raising city kids. Here are a few of my tips:

  • never leave your children unattended around water. You should always be within arms reach of your infant while in the tub. You should always have your eyes on a child who can swim independently, even if you aren’t in the water with them.
  • children should wear life jackets when on boats, even if they can swim. (Not floaties!)
  • swim when there is a lifeguard on duty and stay between the flags
  • pools should be gated with a 4-foot fence and a latch that is out of reach of the child.
  • make sure pool drain covers are in place
  • never swim alone!
  • teach children over the age of 1 to swim
  • caregivers should be trained in CPR

I recommend swimming lessons for children over the age of 1 based on some small studies that suggest even children age 1-4 may benefit from formal swim instruction in terms of preventing drownings. However, it is important that parents are not over-confident about their child’s abilities after teaching them to swim and remain vigilant while their child is in the water. Also, not every child 1 and up is ready for swimming lessons, so parents should decide whether or not they need lessons based on their exposure to water, emotional development, physical abilities, and health conditions.

Where I grew up, everyone knew how to swim. The question was usually how well you knew how to swim. There were those on the swim team, those who could pass the lifeguard test, and those who were surfers. We swam in pools, the town lake, and the Atlantic Ocean. I had a boating license before my driver’s license. And I spent just about every Summer I can remember taking swim lessons before the pool opened and then swimming, diving, and likely annoying the lifeguards with incessant chatter about my technique until the pool closed. Even though I am now a city-dweller, I am appreciative of this lifelong skill and when I am lucky enough to be in the water again, I feel confident. This is why I am passionate about spreading the message about water safety to my patients and instilling it in my own children.

I started my oldest in group swimming lessons at the YMCA as a way to expose him to the water and get him used to blowing bubbles and kicking when he was an infant. More than anything though, it was a bonding activity for us. When my children were 2 and 5 though, we decided to enroll them in private swim lessons to advance their skills. I knew that they were ready to learn more and that if I wasn’t in the pool they would be more likely to learn from an instructor. My 2-year-old, who thinks she is a mermaid, made a few bold attempts to jump into pools unattended, so making sure that she developed some skills to orient herself in the water and get her head to the surface became a necessity. We took lessons this past Summer with Holly Waters of Fitness Alive, who is the perfect balance of enthusiastic cheerleader and disciplined coach. She had patience with both my reluctant, anxious 5-year-old swimmer and over-zealous, determined 2-year-old mermaid simultaneously. After a few weeks, both were moving themselves in the water in a fashion that some could call swimming. Most importantly though, they developed a respect for water safety while also growing in their love of a new hobby.


For more information about drowning prevention from the AAP, click here.

For more information about Fitness Alive swimming, click here.

[I have no affiliation with Fitness Alive and was not compensated for this unsolicited post. The above is for informational purposes only and should not be used as individual medical advice. Please contact your physician for individual guidance on whether or not your child is ready for swimming lessons. See full disclaimer here.]

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