6 Keys to Protect our Children from Drowning
As a former Professional Lifeguard, I am often approached for advice on water safety. I decided to present that advice as six useful and practical reminders about water safety for all parents and caregivers.
According to the World Health Organization, there are over 350,000 reported deaths from drowning globally each year. Tragically, a high percentage is from children under the age of 5. The optics in which I am looking at this from is as a mother, a lifelong swimmer, and a water safety professional. I LOVE swimming and I love everything there is about water. I’ve always loved swimming. I learned the basics here at the YMCA in Nairobi where my mother took us to swim as young kids.
I love swimming so much that I swam on my high school’s swim team even though we didn’t have a swimming pool and had to wake up at 4 am to train at another school’s pool. I love swimming so much that I trained as a lifeguard and as swim instructor at university and watched over adult swimmers and taught children in the summer. I love swimming so much that I’ve continued to swim regularly throughout my adult life. I love swimming so much that I had a water birth so my son could enter the world with water.
Over the years of this addiction to water, I have also paid close attention to safety and while I have fortunately never witnessed nor lost anyone close from drowning, I have been hyper-sensitive to it knowing the risks:
1) Understand what Drowning looks like
Like with many life events, movies portray drowning in a dramatic fashion that does not reflect reality accurately. Most of the time drowning is fast and easy to miss — this is the crux of what is so terrifying about it. Here are the key signs every parent should know:
• Head low in the water, mouth at water level
• Head tilted back with mouth open
• Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
• Eyes open, with fear evident on the face
• Hyperventilating or gasping
• Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
• Trying to roll over on the back to float
• Uncontrollable movement of arms and legs, rarely out of the water.
Two good articles to read more are Drowning and AAP Prevention of Drowning
2) Assess the Lifeguard
Most of us in Nairobi swim in large pools open to the public whether free or for a fee. It is absolutely crucial that these pools have lifeguards on duty whose sole job is to watch over the swimmers. The first thing you should do when you arrive is look for that lifeguard and notice how attentive he or she is. This person should not be doubling up as a waiter or also setting up towels. It’s actually simply sitting and watching actively – this means they are also instructing kids not to run or bring inappropriate toys into the water. They should also have a flotation device right next to them.
If the lifeguard seems to be doing multiple jobs, speak to the management right-away. If there is no lifeguard, ask the management where that person is and if it’s a place that doesn’t have one, then you have to make a choice as to whether you are going to be the lifeguard.
3) Be Your Child’s Lifeguard
I strongly believe that parents are ultimately our children’s lifeguards. For instance even though we know that our watchman is a trained security professional, we all know that there are additional precautions we take to protect our families at home. This is the best way to think of it when swimming. Even if there is an active lifeguard on duty, while it may take 3-4 minutes for someone to die under water, submersion (going under water when they are not that visible) happens in under 60 seconds.
In addition to ensuring there is an active lifeguard on duty, take turns every 30 minutes as the adults to watch your children swim. Public pools are often crowded but with your eye on your child at all times will ensure early detection of any issue.
This doesn’t mean you have to be in there with them if they swim well and are playing with friends but you should have an unobstructed view and your full focus on them. This means NOT multitasking on other things. We should all also look out for other children – we know it takes a village so if you see something off, say something to the lifeguard or another adult. Please do not assume that others have seen it. Make sure you also do a quick perimeter check for security issues when you first arrive, even if it is an upscale resort.
4) Learn to Swim
I’ve heard every excuse under the sun but we need to fully understand that swimming is about survival – It is not a luxury. Most people can learn to swim from age 4 – there is ongoing debate about teaching kids before this because while they gain early comfort with water, they can also be overconfident, which can lead to more risks.
Swimming is a basic life skill. Granted, we may be impeded from being avid swimmers due to issues like hair maintenance, upbringing and lifestyle. The bottom line is, if you are going to let your children swim, you need to know how to swim.
Invest in swimming classes at school or outside of school if your school does not have a pool. Please do not assume that your child doesn’t need to know this skill as one can capsize in a boat and need to know how to survive. For yourself, take classes on adult swimming basics and water safety. If you have a legitimate water phobia, then you should not be the lifeguard for your child but appoint someone else who you trust who is a confident swimmer.
5) Emergency Services – Get Trained & Know what to Look For
Every public pool should have all basic swim safety tools – here is what they look like. Don’t let those rings collecting dust fool you – try pulling it off yourself. If you can’t easily pull it and get to the side of the pool and throw it in, how do you think the lifeguard is going to do it? Ask when you arrive what their protocol is if there is a person in distress in the water?
Each public pool should have:
First aid kit fully stocked with these items
Get the specifics. With the information you gather, use your judgment on whether you will still swim there. You also need to take first aid training and ideally do a refresher each year.
There are many online videos but I recommend going to a class so you can completely focus on what you’re learning and ask questions from trained professionals. We have several First Aid & CPR classes here on our site available in Nairobi. Please ensure you and all caregivers for your children are trained and stay refreshed. In the meantime, this is a good article at Parents.com about what to do in a drowning situation.
6) Take Action When there is an Emergency
We are living in a world of seemingly increasing risks everywhere. You’d rather look like a crazy overprotective mum if it is a false alarm than regretting keeping quiet. If you are not in a position to try to save someone in the pool, pick up your phone and call the Red Cross on 0700 395 395 and tweet them @KenyaRedCross. You can reach St. John’s Ambulance on 0721611555. They have over 500,000 followers on Twitter @StJohnsKenya and respond swiftly by phone and Twitter. Don’t assume that someone else has called for an ambulance. Call one – you can always call back and cancel once it is on site.
We repeat : if something is off, trust your instincts and do something. It takes a village so as parents we must all be vigilant and watch all the children around us, whether they are ours or not. Drowning can happen to anyone, even the most experienced swimmers.
This is the first of a series of swimming related articles I will write. The next will focus on pools at home or in your complex as there are additional considerations for these.