June is Children’s Awareness Month, the perfect time to discuss water safety at the pool, by the ocean or a stream. The long, carefree days spent in the water can create splendid summer memories. But it is also a time of year that brings tragic stories of children who cannot swim, wandering off alone and drowning in a shallow creek, or a middle school student who does not know how to tread water, impulsively jumping into the deep end, then floating to the surface, lifeless.
Water accidents kill hundreds of children each year. It can happen quickly, silently or in a violent, mortal struggle known as death by drowning. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says drowning is the leading cause of death for children and provides a disturbing statistic that requires the community’s immediate attention and action: “Black children ages 10-14 years drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children.”
With the lives of so many Black children at an increased risk of dying, drowning becomes a public health problem, in desperate need of a solution. Ways of addressing the issue include offering water safety classes, organized swimming lessons and encouraging diversity in pool employment by providing access to Red Cross lifeguard training and certification to Black children.
Teaching all Black children water safety and swimming is a health disparity imperative that should involve community stakeholders, such as health providers. School nurses can make families aware that knowing how to swim may one day save their child’s life. Faith leaders could encourage parents to enroll their kids in swimming classes, perhaps make lessons a part of the vacation Bible school curriculum. Parents can lobby the school board to offer water safety and swimming lessons to all students enrolled.
Claire McCarthy, MD, a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, says “A child doesn’t need to be able to swim butterfly or do flip turns, but the ability to get back to the surface, float, tread water, and swim to where they can stand or grab onto something can save a life.”
The CDC offers the following advice to guide parents in selecting safe facilities and properly trained instructors for swimming lessons:
- Supervision: Ensure that a qualified lifeguard or swimming instructor is present at all times during the swimming lessons. They should be vigilant and attentive to the swimmers in the pool.
- Qualified instructors: Make sure the swimming lessons are conducted by certified and experienced swimming instructors who are trained in water safety and rescue techniques.
- Age-appropriate lessons: Ensure that the swimming lessons are tailored to the age and skill level of the participants. Young children and beginners should start with basic skills and gradually progress to more advanced techniques.
- Proper warm-up and stretching: Begin each lesson with a warm-up session and stretching exercises to prevent injuries and prepare the body for swimming.
- Swim in designated areas: Make sure the swimming lessons take place in designated swimming areas, such as swimming pools or supervised beaches, that are safe and free from hazards.
- Teach water awareness: In addition to swimming techniques, emphasize water awareness and safety rules, such as not diving in shallow water, not swimming alone, and knowing how to recognize and respond to signs of distress in the water.
- Learn basic rescue techniques: Teach advanced swimmers basic water rescue techniques, including how to assist someone in distress without endangering themselves. This knowledge can be invaluable in case of emergencies.
- Proper use of flotation devices: If needed, use appropriate flotation devices, such as life jackets or floaties, especially for beginners or those who are not confident swimmers. However, remember that these devices do not replace proper supervision and swimming skills.
- Sun protection: Remind students to apply waterproof sunscreen before the lessons and reapply it regularly, especially if the swimming lessons take place outdoors. Additionally, encourage the use of hats and UV-protective swimwear.
- Hydration and breaks: Encourage swimmers to stay hydrated by providing water breaks during swimming lessons, particularly in hot weather conditions.
- Pool rules and etiquette: Teach swimmers about pool rules, such as no running on the pool deck, no diving in shallow areas, and respecting other swimmers’ space. This helps to create a safe and enjoyable swimming environment.
Dr. McCarthy reminds parents, “Just because a child can swim doesn’t mean he can’t drown. Children can get tired, hurt, trapped, snagged, or disoriented. Even strong swimmers can get into trouble. While swimming lessons help save lives, children should always, always be supervised around water, and should wear life jackets for boating and other water sports.”