We were at a resort pool steps from the Caribbean — the kind of pool with a swim-up bar, surrounded by palapas shading cushy chaise lounges.
My family was relaxing in the adjoining hot tub. My wife and I were chatting with a couple from Detroit, as our 3- and 5-year-olds splashed.
Then I noticed our 3-year-old daughter wasn’t there.
Not in the hot tub. Not at the poolside. Not headed down to the beach. I leapt up and spotted her, completely submerged deep in the pool. Plunging in, I lifted her out of the water.
Her panicked scream as she emerged is the sweetest sound I’ve heard in my life. She was, thankfully, perfectly fine.
The fact is, we were lucky. Drowning is fast, silent and utterly devastating. It’s also common.
Drowning is the leading cause of death in the U.S. among children ages 1 to 5 years. Among 5- to 19-year-olds it’s the third leading cause of death. In 2017 that added up to 1,000 deaths and 8,700 trips to the emergency room.
Drowning can happen to any family, even Jackson families. Bode Miller and his wife Morgan lost their daughter Emmy and are bravely talking about it as part of a national drowning prevention campaign. I suspect many parents reading this now have their own stories of near-misses — or worse.
For toddlers, preschoolers and other beginner swimmers, the most important ways to prevent drowning are limiting access to water and close, continuous adult supervision. Toddlers are curious, mobile and excited to experience new things. They are not cognitively capable of evaluating and avoiding risks. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 69% of children younger than 5 years of age were not expected to be at or in the water at the time of a drowning incident.
Infants and small toddlers can drown in bodies of water as small as a toilet, baby pool or watering pail. Any container around the house should be emptied when not in use. Toddlers should not have access to bathrooms on their own.
Here in Jackson, many of the places we play in the summertime feature water — lakes, rivers, creeks, and irrigation ditches which pass through many local parks and neighborhoods. This time of year particularly, our water is cold, high and fast. When children are in or near water, they should be accompanied at all times by a designated “water watcher.”
A water watcher is an adult whose sole job is to keep an eye on the water and the people in or near it. This means not swimming with head under, texting, socializing, tending chores or drinking alcohol. There needs to be a clear handoff of responsibility from one water watcher to the next, giving each other breaks. Supervision must be close, constant and attentive. In case of an emergency the supervising adult must be able to recognize a child in distress, safely perform a rescue, initiate CPR and call for help. Early and effective bystander CPR is a critical element in drowning rescue.
Studies have shown that swim lessons, starting as early as 1 to 4 years, can also help. When to start swim lessons should be an individual decision based on a child’s physical, emotional and cognitive maturity. Children less than a year old might have fun in the water and learn to become comfortable for later lessons, but do not usually possess adequate strength or coordination to learn how to keep their head above water. Lessons should continue at least until basic water competency is achieved, considered to be when a child is able to safely enter the water, turn around, swim at least 25 yards, float on or tread water and exit a pool.
Until your child can swim, a Coast Guard-approved life jacket is a great idea. Children should always be required to wear life jackets on boats, and adults should wear them too in order to model appropriate behavior and facilitate assisting others in case of an emergency. “Water wings,” “floaties,” neck rings, inflatable seats or other air-filled devices are not adequate.
After the preschool years we see another spike in drowning risk, among adolescents. Despite greater strength, skill and experience, kids 15 to 17 years old are more than three times more likely to drown than 5- to 9-year-olds. The higher risk in teens is likely due to several factors, including overestimation of skills, underestimation of dangerous situations, engaging in high-risk and impulsive behaviors and substance use. Alcohol is a contributing factor in up to 70% of recreational water deaths among U.S. adolescents and adults.
Jumping or diving into water can result in devastating spinal injury. Parents and children should know the depth of the water and the location of underwater hazards before jumping or diving. The first entry into any body of water should be feet first.
It’s been a long winter, but finally the sun is starting to shine, the trails are drying out and the snow line is retreating up the mountainsides. The water is looking really good. Enjoy it, but be safe out there.