Keep Your Kids From Drowning

Summertime is a great opportunity to develop family memories and enjoy time with your kids, but it presents some real risks as well. This is a topic that is of particular importance to me because of a personal experience that I had last year, as well as a number of patients I have cared for that died or suffered significant brain injuries due to drowning.

About this time last year, I put the finishing touches on a small sailboat that I had spent about 18 months restoring. I couldn’t wait to take the family out. I got all of our equipment loaded up in the boat, got the kids in the car, and drove to a nearby lake for the maiden voyage. It was a beautiful sunny day with a moderate breeze–perfect for sailing. I put the boat in the water and went to park the trailer while my wife put life jackets on the kids. She asked me if she had to wear hers, and I insisted–they don’t work nearly as well otherwise.

IMG_0224About 20 minutes into our sail, my oldest daughter mentioned something about tipping over, and I reassured her that I wouldn’t let that happen. Three minutes later, I was proven wrong when the wind abruptly changed direction and I was unable to adjust the sails in time. The wind knocked my small boat over, and in a matter of seconds, everything had changed. Instead of a leisurely family sail, my world was transformed into a nightmare as I looked desperately for my children. They were there–terrified, but bobbing safely on top of the water with the help of their flotation devices. My wife and I managed to drag them both up onto what used to be the bottom of the boat, and we tried to stay calm while trying to figure out what to do next.

I had an emergency kit with a VHF radio and flares, which was sinking slowly to the bottom of the lake (along with my keys, sunglasses, cell phone, and a lot of other stuff). We were able to flag down a fishing boat with a couple guys that took my wife and daughters back to the ranger’s station, but not before they were starting to become lethargic from hypothermia. They came back for me after I managed to get the boat righted and bailed out, and towed me back to shore, where everyone else was bundled in towels and huddled together next to a space heater. I would have loved to have offered them something, but I had very few options; they were happy to have been helpful, and I will be forever grateful for their assistance.

IMG_1482That day certainly didn’t go as planned, and it cost a lot of money to replace everything we lost, but the whole thing turned out alright. We were all alive, and with only minor injuries (well…my wife would argue that “minor” is an understatement, but it could have been a whole lot worse).

But unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. About 3,500 people per year die from drowning, and it’s a leading cause of death in young children. And death isn’t the only bad outcome. Many survivors suffer severe and permanent brain injuries because of the time they spend without adequate oxygen to their brains. Fortunately, the vast majority of drownings are preventable, so here are some tips to help keep your kids safe this summer:

  1. It doesn’t take much water. Even a small kiddie pool or bathtub can be enough for a child to drown in, so don’t be fooled into thinking they are safe.
  2. There’s no substitute for supervision. And “supervision” doesn’t mean reading a book or taking a nap in a chair across the pool. It means being close enough that if something happened, you’d be able to get to them–and paying enough attention that you’d notice in the first place, because it isn’t always obvious. For children under 5, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that they are always within arm’s reach.
  3. Kids can’t drown if they can’t get to the water. Pools should be surrounded by fences at least 4 feet high with self-latching gates that children can’t operate. And the house shouldn’t be part of the fence–it doesn’t do any good to have a fence if your toddler can wander out the backdoor and end up inside it. Alarms to alert you if the gate is opened are a great backup.
  4. Swim lessons can be helpful, although they haven’t been shown to be effective in children under one year of age. And even in older kids, they should be a supplement–not a substitute–for close supervision.
  5. Choose flotation devices based on your activity. Look for Coast Guard-approved devices for use on boats or docks. Always make sure that they fit your child appropriately and follow the instructions for use. And for use in the pool, realize that inflatable items like water wings, rafts, or rings are not approved flotation devices–they’re fine for play, but don’t trust your child’s life to them.

There are certainly more safety tips I could share, and if you’d like to read the AAP’s full recommendations about sun and water safety, you can find them here. But hopefully, this post has helped to emphasize that water safety is critical–you never know when it might really matter.