Summer is just around the corner and soon it will be time to break out the sunscreen and beach towels. I love spending time outside and going to the pool with my son. I grew up surrounded by lakes and spent my summers working as a lifeguard and swim instructor.
I am always amazed when I see parents drop off their kids (often under age 12) to swim unsupervised. The lifeguards may be vigilant, but they are not a substitute babysitter. I can’t tell you the number of times I have witnessed kids diving into the shallow end of a pool or trying to prove themselves to their friends by attempting to swim across the lake or reach the dock on a dare. Every year I see kids with second-degree burns and huge blisters because parents thought they didn’t need sunscreen because it was cloudy or their child “had a base tan”.
Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children. Near-drowning and other water related injuries prompt countless emergency room visits every year. All it takes is one second for a child to drown or be seriously harmed at the pool or beach. It is our job as parents to make sure our kids are being closely supervised and are safe while playing in or around the water.
When should my child start swimming lessons?
Swim lessons are essential for school-aged kids and a wonderful way to increase water readiness in younger children. It can be appropriate for children as young as one-year-old to join a swim class. Lessons for babies and toddlers should focus on water comfort and fun. Programs for young children are not designed to teach children to swim and parents should be wary of any programs that claim to make children drown-proof. There are a variety of programs for pre-school aged children. Some are independent classes and others are parent/child classes. These classes begin to teach early water safety skills and beginning swimming skills. It is a good idea to enroll your child in their first independent swim class between 3-5 years of age. Children who are minimally exposed to water and start swimming lessons after the age of 5 tend to more fearful and often take longer than their peers to develop water comfort and basic swimming skills. However, even children who are experienced swimmers need to be properly supervised when playing in the pool or at the beach. No child is completely safe from drowning.
Can I use flotation devices or life jackets to help keep my child safe?
Coast Guard approved life jackets can be used to help keep kids safe. They are designed to float children in an upright position with the face out of the water when worn properly. All children on boats need to be wearing life jackets regardless of swimming level. Other types of flotation devices, water wings, and non coast guard approved life vests should be treated as toys. You should never rely on these items to keep your child safe. In fact, these types of flotation devices can give both kids and parents a false sense of security.
What is the best kind of sunscreen for kids?
There are lots of different brands and types of sunscreen. Look for sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays and is at least SPF 30. In general, lotions are better than spray sunscreens. They can be applied more evenly and you are less likely to miss a spot. Lotions containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are safe and well tolerated by kids. Make sure you reapply every two hours and again after your child gets out the water. Remember ANY sunscreen is better than no sunscreen!
Can I read a book on the side of the pool if a lifeguard is present?
No! While lifeguards add an additional level of security, they do not take the place of close supervision by a parent or other adult. Lifeguards are trained to rescue children and to monitor the water; however, training levels vary and lifeguards are responsible for watching a large number of people. I’ve seen lifeguards reading books, listening to music, and talking on the phone all while supposedly watching the water. You should never rely on someone else to watch your child. Children drown in lifeguard protected pools and beaches every year. It only takes a second for a child to slip under the water unnoticed. This is especially true at beaches or other areas where the water is cloudy and bystanders are unable to easily see the bottom of the lake. Enjoy your time in the water, but make sure you are an arms length away from any young children or early swimmers and closely monitoring older swimmers from nearby.
My teenagers are very confident and strong swimmers – Can I let them go to lake/pool with their friends?
Most older teens can safely swim at public lifeguarded pools or beaches. If the beach or pool is unguarded, a supervising adult should accompany teens. Be sure you talk to your child in advance about water safety and expected rules and behavior. Make sure they know not to swim in unguarded or closed beaches or pools.