Swimming Safe With a Toddler

toddler swimming

John Lund / Tiffany Schoepp

With sunshine and heat comes the promise of endless days spent playing in the pool, at the lake, and in splash pads. But for children and toddlers (even those who can swim on their own), this favorite summer and vacation pastime can be dangerous for little ones and anxiety-producing for parents and other caregivers.

In general, the number of kids with unintentional injuries increases during the warmer months. An estimated 4,800 young children (under age 5) require treatment in emergency departments due to unintentional drowning-related incidents each year, and in 2016, 289 children under 5 died from drowning in a pool or spa. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the number one cause of unintentional injury death in children ages 1 to 4 in the U.S.

Because of this, it is incredibly important that parents be aware of and practice pool and water safety—being vigilant will minimize the risk of accidents and maximize your family’s fun.

Tips for Swimming Safe

When in a pool, parents, other caregivers or the adult in charge has to stay alert at all times—no exceptions. Even if there is a lifeguard present, that person's job is to oversee the whole pool, not watch any specific child. Use these important safety rules to prevent drownings.

Use touch supervision in or near the water. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends staying within arm's length, providing constant "touch supervision," whether it's bath time or swim time. Most child drownings inside the home occur in bathtubs, usually during a lapse in adult supervision. During swim time, get in the water with your toddler. If you need to get out, take your child with you, even if lifeguards are present.

Keep distractions at a minimum. Not only can drowning happen in shallow water, it can happen in under two minutes. There’s no way around it; actively supervising toddlers who are near or in the water will mean you’re able to act fast if something does go wrong. That means, first and foremost, putting the cell phone away while you’re at the pool or the lake, so you aren’t tempted to read emails, scroll through social media, or send text messages.

Designate a water watcher. Drownings often happen when there are lots of adults around and everyone assumes someone else is watching the kids. Appoint a "water watcher" who knows which children they are watching. Download a water watcher card to identify this person.

Remember that drowning is silent and quick. Typically, there is no flailing, splashing, or other noise, and drowning can happen in less than a minute. Never count on being able to hear a drowning in order to prevent it.

Take swim classes. Learning how to swim can help reduce the risk of drowning, especially for younger children. Swim classes start as early as 6 months and are often available at YMCAs and other indoor pool facilities year-round. Don't count on them teaching your baby to swim, however. For babies under 1 year old, water-play classes help them get used to being in the pool and can be fun, but babies this young can't actually learn how to swim and lower their drowning risk, according to the AAP.

While most swim classes will include the parent and the child until about the age of 3, these classes can help you take huge steps toward your child being comfortable and confident in the water and ready to swim solo when the time comes. Consider making the investment in lessons. Look for classes with experienced, qualified instructors, and that teach kids good water safety practices (including what to do if they fall in the water unexpectedly).

Invest in toddler life jackets. Many parents pick up a set of water wings for toddlers or other floating toys, like noodles or rafts. These do not prevent drowning, and can give adults a false sense of security. Near a natural body of water, like a lake or river, children should wear a personal flotation device (aka life jacket) that is properly fitted and certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Remember, just because your toddler is wearing a life jacket does not mean you don’t need to pay attention to what’s going on.

Don’t ignore pool rules. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a public pool or in a backyard, general pool safety rules—like no running, no dunking or other roughhousing, and no diving in shallow water—are rules for a reason. Make sure your child follows them, and tell a lifeguard if you see kids acting in ways that could be unsafe to themselves and other children at the pool.

Learn lifesaving skills. Parents and other caregivers should be certified in CPR. Administering CPR can save lives if drowning does occur. Check your local Red Cross or YMCA for certification courses and download the Red Cross First Aid App to refresh your skills on a regular basis.

Watch for signs of trouble after swimming. If your toddler has had a near-drowning experience, call your pediatrician. If any child or adult gets out of the pool or lake and is coughing a lot, the coughing persists longer than 4 to 8 hours or gets worse, or the person looks or acts unlike themselves or has trouble breathing, seek immediate medical attention. Difficulty breathing looks like rapid, shallow breathing, particularly sucking in between the ribs, under the ribs, or above the sternum.

Keep Your Home Pool Safer

If you have a pool or hot tub at home, safety is critical: Between 2013 and 2015, 58% of drownings among children ages 4 and under happened in a pool or spa at their own home.

Safety fencing is essential. For children under the age of 4, most drownings occur in home swimming pools. (For children under 1, drownings most often occur in the bathtub or a bucket.) If the child in your care lives in a home with a pool, make sure they cannot access the pool without an adult. The majority of drownings in home pools (69%) occur at times when parents did not expect the child to be in the pool.

According to the AAP, any pool, including inflatable above-ground pools and other temporary pools, should be completely surrounded by a fence that:

  • is at least 4 feet high, with no openings (at the bottom or between slats) that are more than 4 inches wide
  • is climb-proof: has no footholds, handholds, or objects nearby (such as furniture or play equipment) that a child could use to climb over the fence; chain-link fences are easy to climb and not recommended
  • completely separates the pool from the house
  • has a self-closing and self-latching gate that opens away from the pool; the latch should be at least 54 inches above ground level
  • is locked at all times

It's also important to keep toys out of the pool area when not in use, and to always cover and lock hot tubs, spas, and whirlpools immediately after using them.

Use alarms for home pools. An alarm in the pool can alert you if someone has fallen into the pool. Consider alarms on the pool fence gate and exterior doors and windows of your home as well.

Cover your home pool. Use a cover that completely and securely covers the water so that a child cannot slip under it. Be aware of water collecting on top, since a child can drown in just 2 inches of standing water. Floating covers are not for safety; a child can slip under and be hidden from view.

What Are Recreational Water Illnesses?

Chlorine kills germs in a pool, right? Not necessarily. According to the CDC, recreational water illnesses have been climbing for the last 20 years. Recreational water illnesses spread when a child comes in contact with contaminated water in pools, lakes, hot tubs, water parks, and beaches. They can cause a variety of illnesses associated with the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, central nervous system, skin, ears, or eyes.

In order to keep your child's risk of contracting a recreational water illness low, parents and caregivers should follow these guidelines:

Prevent your toddler from going to the bathroom in the pool. With a young child who may not be potty trained (or partially potty trained, or recently potty trained), a properly fitting swim diaper is your best defense. Check the diaper regularly and make sure it is clean. Change it immediately and away from the water if it is dirty, and always wash your hands after changing a diaper.

For potty-trained toddlers and young children, take regular bathroom breaks. Even if a child is solidly potty trained, accidents are not uncommon with children who don't want to stop playing to use the bathroom. Set a timer if you think you'll forget and ask your child every half hour or so if they need to go.

Avoid spreading germs. Do not allow a toddler or young child with diarrhea to swim. Even with a swim diaper, this is not safe, as the diaper can leak. Avoid swimming for two weeks after an incident of diarrhea (in a person of any age) to keep from spreading illness. Also avoid swimming with any open wounds.

Prevent young children from swallowing pool water. Toddlers don't understand how to hold their breath underwater, and therefore are more prone to swallowing water, which is one of the main ways recreational water illnesses are spread. In addition, your little one might think that drinking pool or lake water is hilarious. Do your best to stop your toddler from doing this and help them understand that this water is "icky" and not the same as what's in their sippy cup.

Dry ears after swimming. Always dry ears thoroughly after swimming, using a towel or a hair dryer on a low heat setting.

Test your pool's chlorine levels. Buy pool test strips and use them to check the chlorine and pH levels of the pool. According to the CDC, a proper free chlorine level of 1-3mg/L or parts per million [ppm] and pH of 7.2–7.8 maximizes germ-killing (but still does not kill all pathogens). Pool test strips can be bought online or at most big box and hardware stores, particularly during the warmer months.

How to Prevent Sunburns, Dehydration, and Heat-Related Illnesses

Fun in the sun can quickly and easily lead to other uncomfortable and even dangerous conditions like sunburns, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration. With toddlers, you cannot count on your little one being able to describe discomfort or pain, so parents need to take steps to ensure toddlers and young children avoid these heat and high humidity-related conditions.

Recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion. These signs can include an increase in thirst, weakness, fainting or dizziness, cramping, nausea, headache, increased sweating, clammy skin, or a rise in body temperature. These may not be as obvious in a toddler, but heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke, which is far more serious.

If your toddler begins to show signs of heat exhaustion, get out of the sun. Immediately take them into an air-conditioned space, remove excess clothing, apply cool towels to the body, and hydrate. If symptoms don't improve in 30 minutes, seek medical attention.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if your child shows signs of heat stroke:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Temperature over 103 degrees F
  • Rapid pulse
  • Hot, red skin

Make sure sunscreen is applied and reapplied regularly. For toddlers, choose a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and is water-resistant, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic, with an SPF of 15 to 30. You can go higher, but experts believe that anything over 30 doesn’t typically provide much additional protection. Sunscreen should be applied before you leave for the pool or other outdoor activities, and it should be generously reapplied every 2 hours (unless the label has different instructions) and after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying.

Remember, a toddler's skin is much more sensitive than yours, so do your research on the best sunscreens available for your little one. For sensitive areas that are especially prone to burning (nose, cheeks, tops of ears, shoulders), choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Some of these products come in fun colors and stay visible even after application.

Keep your toddler hydrated. Bring a cooler with plenty of water along with a sippy cup or kid-sized water bottle for your toddler. Keep an eye on how much water your toddler drinks and remind them to hydrate every 20 minutes or so. Drinking plenty of water helps to keep the body’s natural cooling system working.

Cover with clothing. The AAP recommends that children wear hats, sunglasses, and cover-ups. Clothing that offers extra UV protection is helpful. Swim shirts, which are also called rash guards, provide more protection from the sun than traditional bathing suits because of the long sleeves and the special fabric used. These are perfect for toddlers. Also, invest in wide-brimmed (at least 3 inches), UV-protecting hats that cover the back of the neck, and sunglasses with 99% UVA and UVB protection.

Don't swim at noon. It's common knowledge and good advice to avoid the pool mid-day when the sun is typically strongest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you swim early or swim late, you'll avoid the hours that sunburns and other heat-related conditions are most likely happen.

Whether you're spending your time at the beach or just looking forward to getting outside, it's your job as a parent or caregiver to keep your toddler safe at the pool and when having fun near other bodies of water. Being vigilant will go a long way toward preventing everything from common warm weather ailments to serious injuries and potentially life-threatening accidents.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Pool dangers and drowning prevention—when it's not swimming time. Updated March 15, 2019.

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  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Sun safety: Information for parents about sunburn and sunscreen. Updated July 18, 2019.