Drowning is Not Only a Summertime Problem

By Caren Kirschner, M.D.

As pediatricians, part of our goal is to help prevent injuries and fatalities in our patients. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics has highlighted new information on drowning prevention. I think it is important to review some of this information with our families.

Sadly, approximately 900 U.S. children die every year from drowning. Drowning is the single leading cause of injury-related deaths among children aged 1 through 4. It is the third leading cause of injury-related death in children aged 5 through 19. It is deadly because it happens quickly and silently.

Most drowning in babies and toddlers occur in bathtubs and buckets of water. Fifteen to 30% of careful caretakers report leaving their children younger than two for a period of one to five minutes alone in the bathtub. Children can never be unsupervised when in or around bathtubs or buckets even for a second. The caretaker should always be no farther than an arms-length away, and other children like siblings should not be left to supervise. In addition, bath seats and rings are problematic because they can tip over when suction cups fail and cause bodily entrapment which can lead to drowning.

During the toddler years, most drownings occur in swimming pools. All pools, whether inground and above ground, need to be surrounded by a four-sided fence. Barrier fences should not have accessible steps or ladders. Portable inflatable pools are particularly worrisome since they generally do not have fences around them and sometimes are filled with water for weeks at a time.

It is crucially important that all children learn how to swim. It has been demonstrated that children age 2 through 4 are able to acquire the skills for swimming and most children are developmentally ready at age 4.5 years. By age 5 to 6 most, children are capable of swimming front crawl. As you may recall from your child’s well-visit, this is an issue we feel is important to discuss.

When children are playing near water of any type, a “water watcher” should be assigned. This person pays constant attention to the children with absolutely no distractions like cell phones. Adults should take turns being the “water watcher.” Many times, parents overestimate their child’s swimming ability. It is important to note that “floaties” and “swimmies” are unreliable and can impart a false sense of security. They can easily fall off or malfunction. When children are in boats, they should always wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket. These have been proven to decrease the amount of boat related drownings.

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