Taking a dip in the nearest swimming pool is a great way for a family to cool off on a hot day, but keeping a few safety precautions in mind can ensure that swimming is a fun activity where no one gets hurt.
Experts say the most important thing for adults to do is to keep a close watch on the water when kids are swimming. In fact, whether in a backyard or public pool, it's important to make sure an adult is paying full attention when kids are in the water, said Tracy Mehan, a health educator at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. That means not talking on the phone, checking Facebook, sleeping, reading, doing chores or chatting with the neighbors, she said.
An adult needs to be fully engaged when kids, especially young children, are in a swimming pool, Mehan said. Very young children — who can move quickly and may not yet have a realistic sense of danger — need to stay within a hand's reach of an adult at the pool, she said.
"A young child can drown in as little as 1 inch of water," Mehan told Live Science, highlighting the potential dangers of kids being in and around a pool, even a small "kiddie" pool.
"Drowning is often quick, silent and final," Mehan said. It's important to keep the "silent" part in mind — people may assume they'll hear splashing or cries for help, but often times, there's little to no sound at all.
Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest rates of fatal drowning in swimming pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Boys of all ages have a higher risk than girls, and African-American boys and girls ages 5 to 19 are six times more likely to drown in pools compared with white or Hispanic children, CDC researchers have found.
In addition, drowning risk may rise as more families turn to less expensive portable pools as an alternative to pricier in-ground pools, pool memberships and water park visits. These portable pools include wading pools, inflatable pools and "soft-sided, self-rising" pools that can be installed in the backyard and taken down at the end of the season. [9 Weird Ways Kids Can Get Hurt]
Portable pools can be dangerous, according to a study by researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital published in the journal Pediatrics in 2011. The findings showed that a child drowns in a portable pool every five days in the U.S. during the summer.
Because portable pools are small, inexpensive and easy to install, parents may not realize the risks of these pools, the researchers wrote in their findings.
The majority of drownings or near-drownings in portable pools involved children under age 5, and nearly three-quarter of these cases occurred in the child's own yard, the researchers found.
Pool safety tips
Despite these risks, there's no denying that children enjoy swimming, floating, kicking, playing games, jumping or diving into a pool. In addition to making sure there's always an adult present who is paying attention when kids are in or near the water, here are nine more tips for keeping kids safe at the swimming pool.
- Fencing adds an important layer of protection around pools, in addition to an adult's watchful eye. "The safest way to prevent drowning is to have four-sided fencing around the pool that is at least 4 feet high," Mehan said. The house should not be considered one of the four sides because it does not block pool access, she said. Four-sided fencing should also have a self-closing, self-latching gate, she added.
- Clean up the pool and the area surrounding it after each use, Mehan said. Remove any floating toys in the water, which can attract a child's attention and tempt a youngster to reach in and grab the object. They can unexpectedly fall in during the process. [Go Outside and Play: Tips to Get Kids Moving]
- Whenever possible, put away the ladders that can give access to portable pools when not in use. This might help prevent kids from entering the pool unsupervised, Mehan said. Another option to keep kids out is to an install a pool cover, she added. Small kiddie pools can be emptied out after each use and put out of sight to help safeguard little ones.
- Establish and enforce rules for using home pools, and follow the posted rules at public pools. Pool decks can be wet and slippery, so although many kids are excited when near a pool, they need to walk, not run. Obey "no diving" rules in designated areas, which are too shallow for diving. It's also a good idea to shower (and pee in the bathroom) before entering a public pool and jump into areas where other people are not already swimming.
- If a child is going to a pool at a friend's house, parents need to ask ahead of time if an adult will be available to supervise kids when they go swimming, Mehan said. [5 Tips for Safe Summer Swimming]
- Children who wear water wings or use inner tubes and noodles can provide parents with a false sense of security, Mehan said. Air-filled flotation devices might get small holes in them and lose air, so she recommends avoiding their use and relying instead on a U.S. Coast-Guard approved life jacket.
- Even in public pools with lifeguards on duty, parents need to be in the water with young children and stay within arms' reach of infants, toddlers and weak swimmers, Mehan said.
- Sign children up for swimming lessons, Mehan said. There is some disagreement about the appropriate age for kids to start taking lessons, but she said kids older than 4 are definitely ready. Children ages 1 to 4 can also benefit from becoming more comfortable in the water. But even with swimming lessons, kids in this age group still need to have adults close by when they are in the pool, Mehan said. Older kids who have some swimming skills may still get into trouble, tire easily or panic in deeper water, which are all good reasons for parents to always keep a watchful eye on the pool.
- Swimming is a wonderful way for kids to be physically active, so get out to a pool and have fun — just make sure that children are doing it safely, Mehan said.