Children May Be At Higher Risk of Drowning This Summer
The pandemic poses new safety challenges around water. Parents should be ready.
By Lisa L. Lewis
May 22, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
The summer of 2020 is shaping up to be anything but normal. Will camps be open? What about day care? What will kids stuck at home do all day long? With so many families sheltering in place and parents juggling work and child-care responsibilities, drowning is probably low on the list of concerns. But it’s this exact scenario that can lead to kids being unsupervised around water — even momentarily — with tragic results.
Jenny Bennett, an emergency-room nurse and mother of four from Tomball, Texas, experienced it firsthand. On July 9, 2016, Bennett’s 18-month-old son, Jackson, exited the house through an unlocked doggie door and ended up facedown in the shallow end of their backyard pool. “It was kind of a fluke that the dog door was left open and he was unknowingly unsupervised. We thought he was safe upstairs with his sisters playing,” she said. “It was about five minutes.”
Jackson’s skin was still warm and pink when she found him. “As a nurse, I had some hope,” she said. She pulled him from the water and realized he wasn’t responsive, then immediately started CPR and rescue breathing.
He was first taken to the hospital where she works. “There I was, surrounded by my co-workers,” she said, “as they tried to resuscitate my son.” Jackson was then flown to another hospital; after four days on life support, he was declared brain-dead.
Bennett subsequently co-founded Parents Preventing Childhood Drowning and now does outreach to parents and pediatricians. “I don’t remember a single discussion about drowning or drowning prevention with any of my children’s pediatricians throughout their well-checks,” she said. “I felt like I was just completely oblivious and naïve.”
Dr. Adam Katchmarchi, Ph.D., executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and assistant professor of kinesiology, health and sport sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, pointed to the statistics. “People are always shocked to know that drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children 1 to 4,” he said. (Drowning is also the second-leading cause for ages 5 to 9.) “We spend so much time talking about car seat safety and fire safety and all these other things.”
Not only are pools the most common location where preschoolers drown, but 69 percent of the time a child under age 5 drowns in a pool, he wasn’t expected to be there. The scenario that led to Jackson’s death, a brief lapse in supervision of mere minutes, is also common .
Summer is high season for child drownings in pools and spas, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Nonfatal drowning injuries are even more common, sending an estimated 6,400 kids under age 15 to the emergency room in 2018.
This year, with outings to the community pool, day camps and pool parties still on hold, kids cooped up at home will be eager to get in the water as the weather warms. Experts worry that parents are stretched too thin to provide the required supervision, leading to an increase in child drownings this summer. As of mid-May, both Florida and Texas — the top two states for child drownings in pools and spas — are already seeing higher numbers than last year.
Actively supervising kids is hard to do right now, experts acknowledge. “You cannot physically supervise them every second of the day,” said Dr. Sarah Denny, M.D., an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ revised “ Prevention of Drowning ” policy statement issued last year.
“Kids are incredibly persistent and creative and they find ways to get to water,” said Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine and chair of the A.A.P.’s Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.
Passive supervision, such as being nearby and listening, or even being physically present but working or scrolling on your phone, isn’t enough. Instead, Dr. William Ramos, Ph.D., a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and an associate professor at the Indiana School of Public Health in Bloomington, recommends “touch supervision” for kids under 5; for those 10 and under, he encourages parents to stay within eye shot or arm’s reach. To avoid confusion, one adult should be the designated “water watcher” and be trained in CPR, he said.
Given that children can drown in as little as one minute , the A.A.P. recommends multiple layers of protection, as outlined in its policy statement.
The top recommendation is installing barriers to prevent kids from accessing water on their own. For pools, this means a four-sided fence that’s at least four feet high with a self-closing, self-latching gate. Even those aren’t foolproof: Earlier this year, a mom in Australia filmed her 3-year-old as he climbed on top of a plastic dune buggy to unlock the pool gate so he and his younger sister could enter.
Inflatable pools may seem like great options during pandemic-driven staycations , but even those portable pools can be deadly. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a kiddie pool. It’s only six inches of water.’ Well, if a kid’s flat, facedown and can’t get up, they are submerged underwater,” Dr. Katchmarchi said. This is particularly true with babies and young toddlers, who have a harder time righting themselves because of their proportionally larger heads.
Smaller pools should be emptied after use. With larger above ground pools, simply removing the ladder isn’t enough. If families with pools have put off installing a fence, “now is the time to do it,” said Dr. Hoffman, who was one of the authors of the A.A.P.’s statement.
As an additional safety measure, the C.P.S.C.’s Pool Safely public education campaign recommends installing alarms on all doors from the home as an alert if a child ventures outside.
Dr. Denny also warns against using water wings or other flotation devices that aren’t United States Coast Guard approved, as they can deflate or slide off. They should be considered toys, she said, rather than safety equipment.
However, even using an approved flotation device can inadvertently be risky. Bennett’s son, Jackson, always wore one during family swim time, she said. “We were so proud of him, like, ‘Look at our water baby; look at him jumping in the pool — he’s got no fear; he loves the water,’” she said. Looking back, Bennett thinks her son didn’t comprehend that he needed the device to help him stay afloat.
For now, swim lessons may still be on hold, which worries experts like Dr. Hoffman. Camps are also still weighing whether they’re ready to reopen. When they do, they may be even more rushed in hiring and certifying staff.
Doug Forbes and Elena Matyas, whose 6-year-old daughter drowned last summer at a Southern California day camp , urge parents to do extensive due diligence, including reviewing the camp’s emergency action plan and asking about trainings and certifications. “We found out that the counselor in the pool with our daughter was certified at the camp 10 days before she drowned and had zero experience,” Forbes said.
Perhaps the biggest myth about drowning is that it’s obvious; in fact, it’s usually silent, Dr. Katchmarchi said. His advice to parents: “If for any reason you cannot find your child, check the water first,” including pools, any standing water and bathrooms. “Because if your child’s hiding in the closet, it’s not life or death. If they are facedown in the pool, seconds count.”
Lisa L. Lewis is a California-based writer covering parenting, public health and education. She’s currently working on a book about adolescents and sleep.