NEWS

Report Shows Child Drownings Remain High—Water Safety Is Key

little girl swimming wearing floaties

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent report notes that both fatal and non-fatal incidents of child drownings remain high, with most fatalities happening to children under 5.
  • Most of those drownings are attributed to an adult losing track of the child’s location.
  • Water safety instruction and swim lessons are key measures for a safe, fun, summer water experience.

As more and more people are vaccinated and the nation loosens pandemic restrictions, people are excited to venture outside of the home for all the activities and places they’ve missed. For many, that includes taking their kids for a refreshing swim in the pool, which makes water safety crucial.

A recent report released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) highlights the critical nature of water safety. The report notes that incidents of fatal child drownings remain high, as well as emergency room visits related to non-fatal drownings.

Researchers note that the lack of swim lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic may cause those numbers to spike and emphasize the importance of lessons and water safety skills to help keep children safe this summer.

The Report Data

Using data from several sources, the CPSC gives annual updates on fatal drownings and non-fatal water submersion incidents in the U.S. The latest data shows that there has been an uptick in the number of fatal drowning incidents in children younger than 15 years old. Though the latest data for fatalities is from 2016 to 2018, the upward trend has persisted, with an average of almost 400 fatal drownings per year for that age group.

For that same time period, almost 75% of the drownings involved children younger than five years old. Most of these drownings happened at residential pools.

There was an average of more than 6,000 non-fatal drowning injuries that resulted in a trip to the emergency room from 2018 to 2020. The number did dip slightly from 6,300 in 2019 to 5,800 in 2020, yet officials say this is not statistically relevant and believe the upward trend is continuing.

“The lower number of drownings is likely the result of limitations on summer activities—including group or public swimming—due to COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Nikki Fleming, Pool Safely Campaign Lead at CPSC. Fleming notes it is important to view the numbers in context, which does not take away from the trend continuing to climb.

Other findings of note include:      

  • Males under 15 years old suffered more non-fatal drowning incidents than females from 2018 to 2020.
  • Fifty-seven percent of the fatal drownings for children under 5 years old are attributed to an adult losing contact or knowledge of the child’s whereabouts from 2016 to 2018.
  • In-ground pools accounted for the largest percentage of fatal drownings from 2016 to 2018.

Working to Lower the Numbers

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions limited access to many public pools and swimming lessons for children. Their inability to practice skills is a key concern when getting back into the water.

“If they’re in swim instruction, if they’re in a layered program, as many are, they may be bumped back in a level. And that’s okay. Because they just haven’t had that exposure,” notes William D. Ramos, PhD, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and associate professor of Health and Wellness Design at Indiana University School of Public Health—Bloomington.

Dr. Ramos also states that young children may forget water safety skills, especially in light of not having practiced them for a significant length of time. Those skills, and the ability to follow appropriate safety instruction, are imperative when it comes to young children in the water. Coupled with their limited experience with the water due to age, it can put them at greater risk for a drowning incident.

William D. Ramos, PhD

We usually think about a drowning as a terminal, fatal event, but for every one person that dies from drowning, another five end up in the ER, which can end up with all kinds of long-term health outcomes.

— William D. Ramos, PhD

There’s also the potential of future impact from a drowning incident.

“We usually think about a drowning as a terminal, fatal event, but for every one person that dies from drowning, another five end up in the ER, which can end up with all kinds of long-term health outcomes,” Dr. Ramos adds.

Keeping Kids Safe

When it comes to keeping kids safe in the water, helping them to understand the importance of following the rules is a good place to start.

“Drowning can happen in seconds and is often silent. It can happen to anyone, anytime they have access to water. The good news is that drowning is preventable,” states Tessa Clemens, PhD, Health Scientist in the Division of Injury Prevention within CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Tessa Clemens, PhD

Drowning can happen in seconds and is often silent. It can happen to anyone, anytime they have access to water. The good news is that drowning is preventable

— Tessa Clemens, PhD

Dr. Clemens provides several recommendations from the CDC:

  • “Learn basic swimming and water safety skills. Formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning for children and adults.
  • Supervise children closely and constantly when in and around water. Supervisors of young children should provide touch supervision, meaning they should be within arm’s reach of the child at all times.
  • Always wear a life jacket when boating. Life jackets can also be worn by children and weaker swimmers of all ages when in and around natural water and swimming pools.
  • Do not rely on air-filled or foam toys, these are not made as safety devices.
  • Parents and caregivers can learn CPR. Many organizations such as the Red Cross and American Heart Association have online and in-person CPR courses.”

Dr. Ramos notes that the Red Cross has a phone app, and numerous links filled with water safety information. The CPSC urges parents to check Pool Safely to view critical information to stay safe in the water.

Experts say the time in the water is meant to be enjoyed. Just do it the right way.

“We do want to remind people that we want them in the water. It’s engaging, it’s helpful, it’s restorative, it’s got rehabilitative qualities, [and] it opens up a whole world to people. It just comes with a certain framework. Because of the nature of it, we have to think about how to do it safely,” Dr. Ramos concludes.

What This Means For You

You and your family are understandably excited to get back to the beach or spend the summer at the pool. But as the study notes, even a moment of lost contact with a small child can have painful results.

Consider shoring up the kids’ swim skills with lessons, ensure they understand the importance of water safety, and head out for a safe, well-informed time that everyone can enjoy.

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  1. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Pool or spa submersion: estimated nonfatal drowning injuries and reported drownings, 2021 report. Published June 8, 2021.