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Prevent Drowning in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Dec 2, 2022.

The best way to prevent drowning is to make sure your child is supervised at all times in water. This includes swimming pools, bathtubs, hot tubs, buckets, wading pools, and other collections of water. A child can drown in less than 2 inches (5 cm) of water. Toddlers tend to be top heavy. They can drown if they fall head first into water. Drowning can happen quickly, even in a child who knows how to swim. Swim lessons are not a substitute for adult supervision.


Signs of drowning:

The following are common signs that a person is struggling in the water and needs help. Make sure everyone responsible for your child's water safety knows the following signs:

  • Fast breathing, or gasping for breath
  • Head back, mouth open, with mouth at water level
  • Eyes that are closed, or that look glassy or do not seem focused
  • Not using the legs to swim, or trying to roll onto the back
  • Arm motions that look like climbing a ladder

Teach your child about water safety:

  • Never swim alone. It is important for your child to swim with at least 1 other person. This is also called the buddy system. Your child's risk for drowning is higher if he or she is swimming alone.
  • Step into water the first time. Your child always needs to go in feet first. The water may be more shallow than it seems. Your child can have a serious head or neck injury from diving in head first. The injury may prevent your child from being able to get out of the water.
  • Know how to handle a rip current. Water may look calm on the surface but have a strong current below, called a rip current. The current will be so strong that your child cannot easily break free from it. Teach your child not to panic or try to swim away from the rip current. He or she needs to swim parallel to the beach until the current is gone. Then he or she can swim to shore.

Help prevent drowning:

  • Make the bathroom safe for your child. Always stay with your younger child while he or she is in the bathtub. Put child safety locks on toilet seat covers. Toddlers can fall headfirst into a toilet and not be able to get out. Your child always needs to be supervised in the bathroom.
  • Make your yard safe for your child. Empty containers after they are used. For example, empty a bucket of water used for cleaning or for watering plants. Drain standing water after a heavy rain before your child goes into the yard.
  • Get a life jacket for your child. Do not use inflatable flotation devices that fit around your child's arm or other body area. These are not a substitute for a life jacket. Ask your child's healthcare provider which size is right for your child. Your child always need to wear a life jacket when he or she is on a river, lake, or ocean. A younger or weaker swimmer may need to wear it while playing near water, such as on a dock.
  • Talk to your child's pediatrician about when to start swim lessons. Formal swim lessons usually start around age 4 years old. They can start earlier if they include an adult swimming with a younger child. Remember that swimming lessons are not a guarantee against drowning. Your child still needs to be supervised around all bodies of water.
  • Learn CPR. Anyone who regularly cares for your child should also learn CPR, if possible. CPR includes rescue breathing, chest compressions, and calling the local emergency number to get help. CPR can be life saving for a person who has stopped breathing after being submerged in water.

Make your home pool or hot tub safer:

Devices such as pool covers and alarms can help increase safety but cannot substitute for attentive adults. The following are general guidelines for making your home's pool or hot tub safer. You will need to check them at other homes, and at hotels when you travel.

  • Make sure at least 1 adult is available to watch at all times. The adult must be within reach of younger children or weaker swimmers at all times. He or she must be able to see older children and stronger swimmers at all times. The person cannot be distracted, drink alcohol, or use drugs while responsible for swimmers. He or she needs to know when a child is struggling and be able to pull the child out. He or she cannot leave the area unless another adult takes over the watching responsibility. A phone needs to be nearby at all times in case the person needs to call an emergency number to get help.
  • Place a barrier around all 4 sides of the pool or hot tub at your home. This may be a fence or wall. It should keep your house and yard separate so your child does not think of it as a place to play. The following are guidelines to help you install a safe barrier:
    • Make sure it is 4 feet high or taller.
    • Choose a barrier that a child cannot climb over, under, or through. Do not use a chain link fence unless absolutely necessary. Children can often easily climb these fences because their feet fit into the spaces. If a chain link fence is your only option, choose one that has spaces no larger than 1¼ inch (3.2 cm).
    • The space between each board or slat needs to be too small for a child to fit through.
    • Choose a gate that only opens out from the pool and is self-closing. Put a latch on the gate that is self-latching. Make sure the latch is high enough that a child cannot reach it.
    • Lock the gate when the pool is not being used.
  • Keep doors that lead to the water locked. This can help prevent a younger child from getting into the water without adult supervision. A pool alarm may help. This is a device that stays in the pool at all times. Pool alarms are made to sense waves at the surface, such as when a child falls in. The alarm will start when it senses the waves. You can also put an alarm on the gate to the pool and on doors in your house.
  • Keep a rescue device near the pool. A rescue device can be thrown into to the water so a struggling person can grab it. Examples include a rope with an approved rescue flotation device attached, or a rescue hook.
  • Set water rules. Do not let anyone run around the edge of the pool. Someone may slip on the wet surface and fall in. Do not let anyone push, pull, or toss another person into the water or hold someone under. Young children should not use the hot tub. They can become overheated quickly. Tell everyone who uses your pool or hot tub the rules they must follow. Your child needs to follow the same rules everywhere, such as at a hotel or friend's house.
  • Choose and use covers correctly. ​Follow approved safety guidelines. Pool and hot tub covers should be hard or rigid. It must cover the whole pool or hot tub. It must be held in place so tightly a child cannot slip under it. For your pool, choose a motorized cover, if possible. Choose a cover that prevents water from collecting on it. A child who walks or crawls onto the cover can drown in the collected water. A child can also think the surface is solid when it is not. Close the cover of your hot tub when it is not in use.
  • Make pool drains safe. Children can get trapped by pool drains, usually because hair gets tangled in the drain. Make sure all drains have covers made to prevent this. Some pools have strong suction outflow systems. The suction is too strong for even an adult to free a child who is stuck. The outflow system needs to have a safety release button where it can be used quickly and easily.
  • Keep toys out of the water area when it is not in use. This lowers the risk that a child will fall into the pool while trying to get a toy.

Keep your child safe in and around open water:

Open water includes oceans, lakes, rivers, and ditches. The following are ways to prevent drowning in open water:

  • Make sure an adult is always watching your child. The same rules about supervision apply to open water sources. The adult must never leave children without having another adult take over.
  • Always have your child wear a life jacket. Make it a rule that your child must wear a life jacket when he or she is on a boat. You can be a role model for your child by wearing your life jacket.
  • Only let your child swim in the ocean if a lifeguard is on duty. Ocean currents can be strong, and waves can hit the shore hard.
  • Do not let your child walk on a frozen lake or pond until you test it. Your child may fall through the ice and become trapped in the water.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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