In one week, millions of families will observe a delightful Memorial Day tradition: They will take their kids to pools and beaches. Most will leave refreshed and ready for more summer fun. None will expect a tragedy. But tragedies and near-misses happen every summer as hundreds of children drown and thousands are injured in the water.
“We love these places and they are a lot of fun, but we have to realize there are dangers there,” says Kathleen Reilly, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. The commission is leading a new pool safety campaign, which launches today (see poolsafely.gov).
Also today, the American Academy of Pediatrics publishes new safety guidelines in the journal Pediatrics. For the first time, the doctors’ group says that swimming lessons may help prevent drowning in some children ages 1 to 4 but that parents must decide whether kids are physically and emotionally ready to learn. The group has long recommended lessons for children over age 4. And it still says no studies support lessons for babies under age 1.
“The official party line has always been that kids under 4 are not ready” and that lessons might give parents a false sense of security, says Jeffrey Weiss, a pediatrician at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and lead author of the new policy. But now that studies suggest early lessons might be helpful, the group has relaxed its stance, he says: “We’re telling parents it’s their call. We’re not saying everyone should run out tomorrow and sign their 2-year-olds up for lessons.” Lessons won’t “drown-proof” any child, he adds.
The academy, the safety commission and other groups urge multiple layers of protection around pools and other bodies of water. Among their tips:
• If you own a pool, enclose it in a four-sided fence at least 4 feet high.
• Make sure any pool you use, in public or your own backyard, is equipped with safe drain covers that prevent suction injuries and deaths (these are now required by federal law in public pools).
• Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and water-rescue skills. Have a phone handy.
• Supervise children constantly and closely.
How closely? Liz Lewis, a mother of four from Sumter, S.C., found out the hard way on Memorial Day 2005. Lewis says she was standing next to her 4-year-old son, Kai, in a friend’s pool, surrounded by other people. Kai was bouncing around, just keeping his head out of the 3-foot-deep water. “I turned my back to talk to the other adults standing around the pool,” she says, and “two or three minutes” later, an older child pulled Kai out of 8 feet of water. “He was swollen, he was gray, his eyes were rolled back and he was not breathing.”
Fortunately, the pool owner had just taken CPR lessons and started working on Kai as someone else called 911. “By the time the ambulance came, he’d coughed up all the water and he’d started breathing,” Lewis says. Kai fully recovered.
But Lewis says she tells the story so that other parents will know “your eyes and ears need to be on the children at all times.”
That means “no eating, no drinking, no conversing with your friends, no working on your BlackBerry,” says Chrissy Cianflone, director of programs for Safe Kids USA, a non-profit advocacy group. The group’s website (safekids.org) includes a “Water Watcher” tag parents can print out to designate who is on duty at any moment.
Vigilance matters because drowning rarely happens as it does in the movies, with screaming and flailing, Cianflone says: “Usually it’s so quick and quiet that when parents recognize the silence, it’s too late.”