Samuel Lehman, MD 

Summer is here and that means lots of play time around the water. Being around water is a lot of fun for kids, but it can also be very dangerous.

Too often, we hear about tragedies of young children drowning in a swimming pool or a bathtub. Or we hear of a young teen overestimating his swimming skill in a lake or ocean. It is a heartbreaking news story that can be prevented by taking precautions and paying closer attention to the potential hazards around our children.

According to the CDC Childhood Injury Report, drowning is the leading cause of injury or death for those one to four years of age. Most drowning incidents happen when a child falls into a swimming pool or is left alone in the bathtub. Toddlers can also drown in the small amount of water found in toilets or buckets.

The problem is usually not because there is a lack of parents’ good intentions, but rather there is a lapse in supervision. Adults tend to become distracted by a cell phone, the television, a best-selling novel or engaging conversation while children under their care live or play near water.

So what can parents and guardians do to avoid drownings?

The most important thing is to look, don’t just listen. Unlike the movies, drownings are a silent struggle. There is no waving, no screaming, no cries for help. Because a drowning person is trying to get up from the water to breathe in, it is physically impossible to exhale and make noise. Within seconds, a child can be unconscious and submerge under the water.

Any time kids are around water, they must have continuous, active, direct line-of-sight adult supervision. If there is a child under 5years old, it is imperative for adults to have touch supervision, meaning they are only an arm-length away.

When a child goes to a community or hotel pool, remember that they still need adult supervision. Lifeguards are only a second pair of eyes and should not take the place of an adult actively watching a child.

Barriers around a swimming pool offer an added protection against drowning but cannot be relied upon and are not a substitute for direct adult supervision. Because children are naturally curious and agile, they like to climb, crawl and explore on their own. The best barrier for a pool is a four-sided isolation fence with a self-closing and self-latching lock high enough that a child cannot reach it. The fence should not use the house as one of the sides. When visiting other homes, be extra wary since a friend or neighbor’s pool environment might not be as secure as yours.

Many adults do not realize how dangerous even one inch of standing water can be, which is typically the size of a child’s nose. If a child falls flat and becomes unconscious even in a puddle of water, they could drown. This means bathtubs, buckets and ice chests with water, or even a mud puddle, are hazards.

Remember that water levels in lakes and rivers are especially high this year after the recent wet winter. If kids are near large bodies of water, make sure they wear life jackets that are US Coast Guard-approved. The life jacket should be the right fit and appropriate for the child’s weight. Be careful of items that look like a life jacket but instead are swim aids. These items have buoyancy and are good learning tools but do not necessarily keep a child safe. Flotation devices are not a substitute for direct, constant, adult supervision.

Adults should also learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation. If a victim is without oxygen for three to five minutes, brain damage will likely occur. Clinical/biological death occurs within eight to 10 minutes without oxygen. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, happens as soon as water is inhaled and the child stops breathing. Performing CPR right away can help increase a victim’s chance of survival and have better outcomes while waiting for rescue workers.

Finally, learning to swim adds another layer of protection. Teach your older children to not swim alone, stay clear from dangerous rapids, and never dive into unknown bodies of water. Swimming lessons and water safety classes for children over 4 years of age will help make sure they know what to do in an emergency. While classes are helpful, they are not a substitute for direct, constant, adult supervision.

The Kohl’s Water Safety Program — a partnership between Valley Children’s Healthcare and Kohl’s Cares — provides broad-based awareness messaging, educational opportunities and community outreach events to children and families on water safety and drowning prevention. The multifaceted program aims to decrease water-related injuries and drowning and improve the health, safety and wellbeing of children in communities served by Valley Children’s Healthcare and Kohl’s Department Stores.

As parents and guardians, keeping this vital water safety advice in mind can help prevent water-related tragedies and reduce pediatric trauma cases in the Valley.

Samuel Lehman, M.D., is the medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Valley Children’s Healthcare.