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Last Words on Kids and Water Safety…

Global Water SafetyIt is with sadness that I am ending my time as the water safety expert on Pediatric Safety.  I am working on a project to bring global awareness to the issue of water safety and have decided that I need to focus 100% of my time to that effort.  Over the last four years I’ve shared information designed specifically to keep your child safer.  Today I’d like to pull back and show you the bigger picture, in part so that you will understand why I am driven to create awareness on a global level, and in part so that you understand why teaching your child water safety now will keep them safer for their entire life, no matter where they live or travel.

  • Drowning is a leading cause of accidental death globally, but 90% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income country.
  • Children under age five are most at risk for drowning and age two is the most common age for drowning.
  • In countries like the U.S., for every child that drowns, another five have a non-fatal drowning accident, often resulting in lifelong mental and physical damage. Most emergency room visits for children are for drowning.
  • We don’t have the data to count most drowning deaths in the world, so we know the problem is even worse than the numbers show. There is no global strategic effort to end drowning, relatively few programs in place to teach survival swimming and water safety, and virtually no funding.

Now for the good news.  Drowning is preventable and the actions are in your control.

Here is what you need to do to keep your child safer:

  • Install a four-sided fence around your pool with a self-closing and self-locking gate. Empty buckets, ornamental ponds, and splash pools when not in immediate use.
  • Supervise young children and non-swimmers around water, meaning you are close enough to touch them. Leave your phone in the bag – texting and water are just as dangerous as texting and driving. This means in the bath, at the pool, by the lake, or even the drainage ditch after a rainstorm.
  • Teach school age children basic swimming, water safety, and safe water rescue skills.
  • Learn CPR and safe water rescue skills.
  • Teach others – most people aren’t even aware drowning is an issue. All it takes is two minutes and two inches of water and drowning is completely silent. Don’t be afraid to speak up, you could save a child’s life.

Many thanks to the Pediatric Safety team for being willing to devote attention to the neglected issue of water safety and to children’s safety in general.  Additional thanks for their consistent and enthusiastic support of my work.  It has truly been an honor to work with them.  Finally, thank you for taking the time to learn about water safety.  Parenting is hard and time-consuming work and there are many days when adding one more thing seems overwhelming.  Thank you for keeping water safety on your ‘to do’ list – it really does make a difference.

For more information on the global issue of drowning:

Holding Your Breath Underwater: What Parents Should Know…

Remember contests to see who could stare the longest without blinking or who could hold their breath the longest?  Such contests are the stuff of most of our childhoods.  Seemingly harmless displays of prowess.  Life is never as simple as those carefree childhood contests.

kids-holding-breath-contestWhen a child is learning to swim, they need to be able to hold their breath for a reasonable amount of time.  The ability to put one’s face in the water is an important part of being comfortable in the water.  Unfortunately, some children (and adults), find this apparently simple act extremely difficult.  The fear of water, of having your face in the water, can paralyze someone and keep them from learning to swim or ever be comfortable in the water, which then places them at a higher risk for drowning.  Fortunately there are a number of people who are dedicated to helping people overcome these fears.  Check out Project Face In The Water and Water Phobias if you or your children have this reasonable but paralyzing fear.  Know there is almost certainly someone in your area who focuses on teaching people who are afraid of the water.

The other extreme is holding your breath under water for too long.  Competitive swimmers are regularly encouraged to swim under water for as long as possible to increase lung capacity and speed.  Even casual swimmers will challenge themselves to see if they can swim the length of the pool, have breath holding contests, or just swim underwater a bit further.  The more hard-core breath-holding experts go into free diving, challenging themselves to swim deeper, stay down longer, or simply to push themselves to do that extra 20 feet without a breath.

The problem is, if the body decides you have gone too long without oxygen, it will force you to breathe in.  The easiest way for the body to accomplish this is to make you faint, which will then allow the involuntary motion of breathing to continue.  (As opposed to the voluntary motion of holding your breath)  Fainting on dry land isn’t pleasant, but it’s rarely fatal.  Fainting in water can quickly lead to death by drowning.  Drowning isn’t breathing in water, it’s not being able to breathe in oxygen.  Trying to breathe when you are in the water is like trying to breathe in outer space, there simply is no oxygen and you suffocate to death.

When you pass out in the water, it is called Shallow Water Blackout (SWB).  Unfortunately it is a leading cause of death among competitive swimmers.  If you have a competitive swimmer, a risk-taker, a snorkeling enthusiast, or just a regular swimmer, learn more about Shallow Water Blackout.  Understand how it happens, and how you can keep it from happening to you or someone you love.

There are a range of resources to help you.  Life Like Benjo and Shallow Water Blackout Prevention is raising awareness about SWB.  If you are a swim coach or dive instructor, I strongly recommend you contact Aquatic Safety Research Group for information on how to coach more safely.

Breathing correctly while in and around water is one of the most calming and joyful experiences you can have.  Know how and when to breathe properly.  Breathe.

(And the stare down contest did come in handy, totally unexpectedly, in a showdown with a CEO when I was in my 20’s.  I won.)

How To Save Your Child From Drowning

Throw a life preserverAfter learning I work in water safety, a man told me about how he saved a man from drowning in Hawaii.  Several families were exploring tide pools on the lava rocks and a wave swept one man into the water, about 4 feet below the rocks.  The waves were wild, pounding the victim against the sharp lava as he was tossed in the churning water.  Anyone who had jumped in to help him would have ended up in the same helpless position, so there would have been more than one victim and probably multiple deaths.  Everyone was forced to watch the victim drown, including his wife and two young daughters.  Fortunately, the man telling me the story had been a Boy Scout and had learned how to rescue someone safely.  He tied beach towels together, lay on his stomach and put the makeshift rope over the side.  By this time the victim was losing strength and was bleeding badly from multiple cuts.  He couldn’t grab the rope.  The rescuer finally starting yelling at him (in strong and rather pointed language) that he absolutely could not let his daughters watch him die.  A couple of lucky waves pushed the victim against the rope and he grabbed one knot.  Another lucky wave swept him up to the next knot, and slowly they got the victim onto the rocks to safely.

This is not an isolated incident.  I see too many stories like this, where the would-be rescuer also dies, or a parent goes in to save a child and either both die, or just as often, the parent dies and the child is rescued by someone else.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

Take the time to learn how to rescue someone safely, and teach your children. 

The rule is REACH. THROW. GO.

  • REACH for the person using a pole, knotted towels, an oar, anything that the drowning person can grab hold of so you can pull them to safety.
  • THROW something that floats to the drowning person.  A life ring.  An empty gallon jug.  A thermos chest.  A flotation cushion.  A tree log.  Don’t throw it at them, just near them, you don’t want to knock them unconscious.  Throw anything that floats so they can conserve their strength and try to kick back to safety.  Look around, there is a growing movement to have life rings or flotation tubes near open water.  Kauai  and on the River Thames in the UK are leaders in this area, and yes, they have saved many lives.
  • GO!  Run for help!  If you are anywhere near a lifeguard, there is only a 1 in 18 million chance the person will die from drowning because lifeguards are the best insurance going.  If you aren’t near a lifeguard, run for more help or for something to reach or throw.  Call 911.  And when you are teaching your child these things, remind them ALWAYS call for an adult.

For my money, the Boy Scouts of America have the best in basic ‘how to rescue someone’ materials.  Although I come from, and have, a Scouting family, you don’t have to join, you can find out what the basic requirements are for swimming and lifesaving by looking at their merit badge requirements online.  Click here for swimming merit badge requirements.  Click here for lifesaving merit badge requirements.  The rule in my family is you have to be able to pass every requirement before the swimming lessons stop.  It’s not for the badge (though my son earned his), it’s because these badges summarize one of the most basic life skills you can have.  The Boy Scouts do water safety extremely well. 

A final word about the Hawaii drowning scare. There were signs cautioning of the danger of being swept overboard.  I realize the U.S. is so lawsuit crazy that we have signs for everything, meaning we all ignore most of them, but let me be clear, water safety is grossly underfunded.  If there is a sign warning of danger in an area where there is open water, I guarantee the danger already happened.  There is too much water and too little money to just be planting signs around.  If there is a sign, there is a reason.

Parents, When Does Your Child Really Need A Life Jacket?

Wearing-a-life-jacketWhen you think of a life jacket, that sturdy vest that keeps you afloat, you probably think of large boats.  While it is true that you should ALWAYS wear a life jacket when you are on a boat, a life jacket has far more uses for keeping you and your children safer around water.  Today we are going to talk about when to wear a lifejacket, what constitutes a real life jacket, and how to convince the (usually male) disbelievers to wear a lifejacket.

Let’s start with the obvious, wearing a life jacket on a boat, because too many people still leave the life jacket sitting next to them ‘in case I need it’.  70% of boating fatalities result from drowning, and 85% of those who drown are not wearing a life jacket.  It doesn’t matter if you have a little Sunfish sailboat for tooling around a small lake, a ski boat, a fishing boat, or a 90 foot ocean-going Oyster, if you end up in the water unexpectedly because you trip, are hit by the boom, get knocked by a wave, are dizzy from sunstroke, or any other unexpected accident, your odds of drowning are really high.  Even if you see the person go in, think for a minute how hard it is to see a wet head in the water if they aren’t also wearing a life jacket, much less how difficult it is to retrieve the person when they are shocked, cold, and maybe injured.  Even if you can get back to them and haul them onboard in a matter of minutes, they may already have started the process of drowning. My mom rule is that if you are above deck, you have a life jacket on, even docked or at anchor.  And if it’s rough weather, it stays on, period.  The new life jackets are light and comfortable, it’s not a hardship.  Granted, if you are on one of those huge passenger ferries or a cruise ship, no one expect you to parade around all day in a lifejacket, but do know where they are kept and if you have a child, know where the child-sized jackets are stored.  For your own recreational boating, click here  to learn about Coast Guard approved lifejackets, the only type of lifejacket you should ever trust with your child’s life, and your own life.  If you are traveling, call ahead and ask, many places have life jacket loaner programs, so you don’t necessarily have to invest yourself.

What most parents don’t think about is when lifejackets should be used off of boats.  If you have an inexperienced or weak swimmer, a very young child, or anyone with physical or mental limitations, have them wear a life jacket whenever they are near water.  If you are in a pool and at arm’s length, it isn’t necessary, but for a day at the beach or the lake, at one of those fabulous big resort pools, or even if you just have more than one child to watch, a life jacket adds a layer of safety and peace of mind.  It is almost impossible for anyone, even vigilant lifeguards, to see beneath the surface of rough water, so better to keep the head above water in the first place.  Children forget they can’t swim, they jump in or walk until they are over their heads, or just get tired, and next thing you know, they are bobbing just beneath the surface.

You may be thinking, I’m covered, I picked up a great floatation suit at the store, or always have those inflatable arm bands in our bag.  First anything inflatable.  If it inflates, it deflates.  Those inflatable arm bands are still sold everywhere, because the water safety field hasn’t gotten the message out there, but if you have some, do me a favor, pick up the scissors and drive a hole right through them before you put them in the garbage.  Not only can they deflate, especially at a beach or in rough water, but they really limit a child’s arm motion if they are trying to swim.  I’m all in favor of having fun in the water, and inflatable rafts and rings and toys can be great fun, but they are for fun, not for safety.  Inflatable arm bands aren’t even for fun.  If you have a question about any floatation suit or vest you have, see if there is a label saying it is Coast Guard approved.  Or go directly to the Coast Guard website to learn more. A true life jacket can turn an unconscious person onto their back so their face is not in the water.

There is the gray area of a child who is over-confident in the water but doesn’t have solid swimming skills, or has the skills but not the confidence.  For this child, you really want them in the water practicing their skills, under your supervision, but a life jacket may be too restrictive.  My go-to is still the SwimFin. It’s a shark-shaped fin that straps securely around a child’s middle.  A UK-product, it has passed the European Union flotation regulations, except that it is still not a life jacket, because it won’t keep someone on their back if they are unconscious.  I would never use SwimFin in the ocean or any other open water that has a current, a tide, or waves, but for a pool when you want to play more safely, it is absolutely brilliant.  It changed one of our vacations from my daughter saying ‘I’m bored, I want to go back to the room’ to my having to beg to get her out of the pool at the end of the day.  I still kept an eagle eye on her, but it gave her the freedom to practice her strokes and jumps.  Her swimming skills and confidence improved exponentially and appropriately on that trip.  Major bonus, all the kids at the pool wanted to wear one because it looks so cool.

Finally, how to you convince the ‘I’m too cool to wear a life jacket’ members of your family (statistically the males).  For them, I have two videos to recommend.  Both tried and tested within my family.  For the younger males, have them watch this ‘Heroes Wear Life Jackets’ video that features Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers.  My son said he was definitely more likely to wear a life jacket after watching – because it makes life jackets cool.

For the older males, here is an award-winning interactive video that simulates what happens when you are knocked into the water.  You have to keep scrolling to stay alive.  I admit I couldn’t watch for long, but the guys I work with said it got pretty graphic and frightening.  But, it did convince one of the most recalcitrant non-jacket-wearing avid boaters I know to start wearing a life jacket.  I didn’t push or nag, just forwarded the link in an email and said, ‘thought you might find this interesting’.  Sometimes all it takes to change behavior is a slight nudge in the right direction and someone else explaining why they need to change.

For Every Day Spent Saving Kids From Drowning…I Am Thankful

Thank you words drawn in sandThanksgiving is around the corner, a time to focus on all that you are grateful for in your life.  We’d be here a very long time if I were to list everything in my life that I am blessed with, so today I’ll just focus on one thing.  My work.  I have, absolutely, hands-down, the best job on the planet.  If I do my job well, children stop dying, and every day I work with the coolest people around.  Really, it doesn’t get any better.  I am very grateful.

The great thing about working in the water safety field is that water makes people passionate.  Being in and around water brings enormous joy, though sometimes water can be associated with the most intense sorrow of losing a loved one too early, especially a child.  All of us who work in water safety understand the deep healing powers of water, and respect it’s power.  There is commitment, enormous joy, and a sense of hope that inspires me every day.

Today, rather than talk about what you can do to keep your child safer around water, I’d like to recognize just a few of the people and organizations who are working tirelessly to make your child safer every day.  I work with people all over the world, and I can’t recognize them all here, but I’d like to give you some small idea of the range of people who want you to be happy, and safe.  It’s an awesome community and it is a true honor and a privilege to work with these people.

Matt and Chris Hales, two teenagers from California who realized that some of the kids most at risk for drowning can’t afford the basic equipment you need to learn to swim.  They formed Goggles for Guppies which provides swimsuits, swim caps, and goggles to children in need.  Thank you for reminding us, again, that kids can change the world positively.

Christina Fonfe of the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project, who heard about the 2004 tsunami, realized that 80% of the victims were women and children, and got on a plane just days later with the goal of teaching women how to swim.  She has changed women’s lives, and their children’s lives, in unimaginable ways by giving them skills to live that also bring economic empowerment and respect in their community.  Thank you for looking through the obvious tragedy and finding a way to avert future tragedy and enhance women and children’s lives.

The great guys (and Raquel) at ISLA, Nile Swimmers and Lifeguards Without Borders for understanding that a well-trained lifeguard on duty at the beach is the best insurance against drowning.  These organizations go to the countries with big drowning problems and virtually no lifeguards, to train lifeguards, which increases safety, raises awareness, and provides people with a source of employment and respect.  Thank you for showing us how collaboration and leveraging social media can bring the entire world together.

Moses Kalanzi in Uganda, and the many people around the world like him.  Often there are literally just a handful of people in each country who are working to make people aware that drowning is a leading cause of death and that drowning can be prevented.  Working with virtually no resources and even less understanding by the public of why they should care about water safety, Moses, and so many like him, are reaching out across countries and working tirelessly for change.  Moses has been instrumental in bringing together major stakeholders in Uganda as well as international collaborators in the water safety field, in the first ever meeting to talk about water safety in Uganda, this month.  Thank you for showing us that one determined person can change a country, and the world.

Michael and Jo-Ann Morris of the Samuel Morris Foundation who decided that their personal tragedy should never happen to another parent.  Their son, Samuel, died this year, 8 years after a non-fatal drowning accident at age two that left him severely mentally and physically disabled.  The Morris’ cared for their son tirelessly while also becoming outspoken advocates for water safety in Australia and beyond, and a voice for the thousands of parents who are caring for children who didn’t die from drowning, but became permanently disabled.  Thank you for showing us that a parent’s love and devotion truly knows no boundaries and being relentless in your pursuit of changes in attitudes and behavior.

Princess Charlene of Monaco, our true fairy princess.  Princess Charlene could justifiably rest on her laurels as that great triple threat:  an Olympic swimmer; a Princess; and a Head of State.  Instead, she chose to lend her considerable talent and determination to ending an epidemic that few have even heard of, drowning.  The Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation has been in existence just over a year, but has already made a huge impact around the world funding programs and raising awareness.  To the Princess and her amazing team at the Foundation, thank you for being willing to take the hard road and help us raise the profile of the global drowning epidemic, and to provide funding for so many of the incredible programs that were struggling without your help.

Please join me in saying thank you to all of these people, and to the people in your own community that are working to make you and your children safer.  The swimming instructors, the lifeguards, the guy who installed your pool fence, the nurse at the hospital who told you never to leave your baby alone in the bathtub.  They all share the same passion and commitment, to making sure that your family stays safe.  So, please, take a minute to feel gratitude, send them a shout-out on social media or in your community, or donate to an organization that moves you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Who is The REAL Lifeguard at Your Kid’s Pool This Summer??

Editor’s Note: It is a very common belief that lifeguards are the first line of drowning defense for children. But parents really own this job. This post from Rebecca Wear Robinson, first published in April, 2013, explains why. In honor of our 5 Year Bloggiversary, we are publishing 5 of our favorite posts – one from each year since the day we started. This is our fourth “look back” post.  We are proud to have Rebecca as a member of our PedSafe Expert Team, and hope you enjoy the opportunity to read or revisit this important post.


View of pool through flotation tubeI was doing the usual mom chit-chat at Scouts while my son worked towards his water safety badge and fielded the inevitable question from the Scout leader, ‘what do you do?’. My answer, “I’m a global activist working to end child drowning. One child drowns every minute.” And then came the typical response, “Wow, I didn’t know it was such an issue, but it is certainly needed, the lifeguards need to do a much better job.” She then related a story about how she and her husband were at a pool with their baby and 3-year old son. She was sitting at the side holding the baby, her husband was in another area, and the 3-year old suddenly went past his depth and was bobbing up and down under the water, drowning. She screamed for the lifeguard, her husband screamed for the lifeguard but also managed to get to their son before any serious injury occurred. She related the story in harrowing detail and emphasized several times how the lifeguard had clearly not been doing his job well since her son had almost drowned in a crowded pool, so she understood why drowning is such a problem.

What is your initial reaction? Quite possibly the same as hers, the fault was with the lifeguard. If he had been paying attention her son never would have almost drowned. It’s an incredibly common belief, but the reality is quite different. These are excellent, diligent and concerned parents, and they believe, just as most people believe, that if you go to a pool or beach with a lifeguard on duty, you and your children will be safe. Yes, that’s true, if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, your chance of drowning is reduced to 1 in 18 million. Those are very good odds, even better when you consider that 75% of open water drownings occur when a lifeguard is not present. There are no two ways about it: if you swim in an area with a lifeguard, you are much safer, but it’s not just the lifeguard’s job to keep you safe. I do place the blame for that misconception squarely on the shoulders of those of us in the drowning prevention field. We haven’t explained what the true role of a lifeguard is, so let me start now to change how we view lifeguards.

When it comes to water and children, especially young children or non-swimmers, you, the parent, are the first lifeguard on duty. You need to be touch distance from your young or non-swimmer, meaning you can reach out and grab them at any time. Why?

First, a child can drown in 2 minutes in 2 inches of water. Even the best lifeguard, diligently scanning a crowded pool can miss seeing a small child under water, especially if the sun is glinting off the water or there are many people in the pool obscuring visibility under the surface. Plus, most people don’t even recognize someone is drowning since it’s not like in the movies. There is no flailing of arms or screaming. Click here to see what it really looks like – and don’t worry, the boy is rescued.

Second, you don’t want your child to be in a situation where they need to be rescued. You know how hard it can be to spot a small child in a crowded place. Even the fastest lifeguard will take precious seconds to spot the danger and make their way to the victim, and that can be a really frightening few seconds for a child.

Lifeguards are like police and firemen. Their job is to prevent accidents by watching for dangerous behavior and educating the public, and to perform rescues when things do go wrong….but it’s not their job to babysit or watch just one child, much less the 100 children in the water on a busy summer afternoon. Think about it, you don’t let your 3-year old walk 3 blocks to preschool just because your town has police whose job is to keep people safe, do you? The good news is that having a lifeguard on duty is like having a firefighter stand in your front yard just in case a fire breaks out. 95% of a lifeguard’s job is preventing an accident in the first place and only 5% is actually rescuing someone in distress. With you on guard, hopefully it won’t ever be your child in distress.

Now that you’re thinking, ‘great, so much for relaxing at the pool this summer’, I have some very good news. Taking a baby or young child to the pool is better than having a personal trainer and Weight Watchers combined, if you take advantage of the time in the pool with them. Trust me, I worked off two pregnancies swirling my children around in the water. I hope you’ll also check out my tried-and-true ‘fun for kids, great easy workout for mom’ plan!

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