Q: We want to put a swimming pool in our backyard. How can we make it as safe as possible for our young children and their friends?
A: Swimming pools can be a powerful attraction for small children, even when it’s not swimming time. It’s great that you’re concerned about safety, because even observant adults can outrun children in just seconds.
Water safety is of course important for all ages, but especially for toddlers. Drowning is the leading cause of death in children aged 1-4 years. Young children can drown in a few inches of water, and it can happen quickly and silently.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission studied drownings in children ages 4 and younger in Arizona, California and Florida, where swimming pools are most common. It turned out that nearly 70% of those kids weren’t expected to be in or in the pool. The survey found that 46% of children were last seen at home.
Between 2013 and 2015, the majority (58%) of drownings among children aged 4 and under occurred in a swimming pool or spa in their home. Most of the children drowned when they wandered out of the house and fell into a pool that was not locked from the house. They slipped out a door, climbed out a window, and even crawled through a dog door to get to the pool.
But a family pool isn’t the only thing a child can step into unnoticed. More than a quarter (27%) of drownings among children aged 4 years and younger occurred with a friend, relative or neighbour.
Only a few states and municipalities have laws requiring pool safety fencing; there is no national pool fencing law. A sturdy fence around your pool is essential. Install a self-closing and self-locking gate, with the latch at least 54 inches off the ground.
When your child is in someone else’s home, always check that your child has access to swimming pools or hot tubs.
In addition to a fence, other measures can also be applied as additional protective layers:
— Safety gates, door locks and doorknob covers: These can help prevent very young children from going outside unnoticed. Make sure siblings and all other family members know to always close the door behind them so younger children cannot follow them.
— Pool alarms: Kids can drown in seconds, with barely a splash. Pool alarms can detect waves on the surface of the water and go off when someone has fallen into the pool. Make sure the alarms have new batteries and remember that none are a substitute for a properly installed pool fence.
— Alarms on the pool fence gate and house doors: Door and gate alarms can be fitted with touchpads to allow adults to pass through without knocking them off. House doors should always be locked if a child can get through.
— Water viewer: Find a person in the group whose job it is to watch the children swim or play in or near water. This person should not drink alcohol, put his or her cell phone away, avoid other activities such as socializing, preparing food or cleaning up, and should supervise even if a lifeguard is present. At some point, make sure the water warden gets a break and can hand over tasks to another adult.
— Touch monitoring: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends staying within arms length of toddlers and constant supervision. Get in the water with your toddler and don’t rely entirely on lifeguards, who often have dozens of kids to keep an eye on.
– Life jackets: Put your child in a well-fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket when in or near water. Keep Coast Guard-approved equipment, such as life jackets, by the pool.
— Swimming lessons: The AAP recommends swimming lessons as a layer of protection against drowning that can begin as young as 1 year old for many children. If you have any questions about your child’s readiness for swimming lessons, talk to your pediatrician.
dr. Sarah Denny is an attending physician in the Division of Primary Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and an associate professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University School of Medicine. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org.