Everything you need to know about water safety for kids, according to a drowning investigator
After a tragic week of water fatalities, promoting water safety has never felt more important.
Over the past few weeks, throngs of people have been flocking to beaches, lakes and rivers, heading to pools, or building a paddling pool out the back so little ones can have a splash.
But as fun as the water can be, it can also be lethal.
This week alone has so far seen five tragic drownings on our island from people who got into difficulty while making the most of the water in the hot weather.
Yesterday, a 15-year-old boy died after a drowning accident at Lough Sheelin on the borders of counties Cavan, Westmeath and Meath on Tuesday.
Earlier this week, a mother in her 20s drowned in Lough Gowna in Co. Cavan whilst trying to save her child, a 55-year-old man died at Lough Melvin in Co. Fermanagh, a man in his 70s died whilst snorkelling at Spencer Harbour in Co. Leitrim, and a 13-year-old boy drowned whilst swimming in a lake Down.
Last month, a toddler drowned in a paddling pool at his home in Co. Roscommon.
In light of these tragedies, and since so many people are heading to beaches, pools and bodies of water, promoting water safety to people of all ages is of vital importance.
Water Safety Ireland launched a campaign last month inspired by the drowning of three-year-old Avery Greene in August 2019, aimed at promoting water safety to young children. The Hold Hands campaign, launched alongside Avery's mother Amanda Cambridge, hopes to teach young children that they should always hold an adult's hand near water.
According to the organisation, an average of 120 drownings occur in Ireland every year. This statistic is even more worrying when you remember swimming lessons were halted due to the pandemic.
"Children and parents have been without swimming lessons for fifteen months now and there is a danger that they will overestimate their ability and underestimate the risks, such as rip currents, and swimming in unsafe areas as they try to avoid crowds when social distancing," says Roger Sweeney, Deputy CEO of Water Safety Ireland.
"People should make every effort to swim at lifeguarded waterways, all listed at www.watersafety.ie and never use inflatable toys in open water as children can be blown out of their depth by the gentlest breeze."
A drowning investigator's advice on enjoying water safety has previously gone viral, and now her Facebook post on the issue is being recirculated once more.
Natalie Livingston has been in the aquatics industry in the US for decades, with experience in training lifeguards and investigating aquatic accidents or drownings. She's also a mother herself and is passionate about preventing the kinds of accidents she investigates.
Here's her advice on the best water safety practices for parents and children.
Natalie says she gives safety briefings before each swim session. "I outline where they can swim, jump in, how they can jump in and anything else safety-related. A great time to do this is while applying sunscreen. They also know the consequences if they don't follow the safety rules."
Inform your kids about how water depths relate to their height. Regardless of whether or not your child is at an age where they can read depth signs, they'll find the realities easier to understand if you tell them the likes of 'this is up to here on you' or 'at this depth the water would be over your head.'
"This piece of knowledge helps them make good decisions and helps them understand how water depths are different for each person," says Natalie. "Their taller friend may have no problem in the 4ft area, while they would need to tread or have trouble touching."
Teach them the 'suck, duck, tuck' method in case another struggling swimmer grabs onto them. "We see this all the time in drowning events: swimmers who are okay on their own have someone grab onto them because they are struggling and then neither can get away," says Natalie.
"Suck in air if you can (get a breath), duck under the water (the struggling person doesn't want to go there), tuck (use your arms and legs to push away) — and then yell for an adult immediately to help the other person."
Natalie also says it's importance to emphasise personal space to your kids so that they don't grab onto and cause problems for a weaker swimmer.
Remind and alert
Supervision is obviously key to child water safety. As humans, we're obviously going to get distracted. But things like phone notifications, or even a yell from the kids, can help you stay alert.
"I ask my kids to keep me accountable. They know either my husband or I should be watching them at all times. We have told them that if we aren't watching them, they need to get our attention and help us because as humans we get distracted naturally.
"...I downloaded a reminder app, and I set reminders for every minute... Every minute it alerts me and I have the notification say 'Kids Breathing' so I confirm my kids are okay and then clear the notification. Obviously, my goal is constant supervision, but sometimes my brain starts to wander to something I am thinking about and the notification checks me back in."
Timing is everything
Natalie says keeping a time limit on swim sessions is important both for swimmers and supervisors alike. Swimmers need to give their body a rest, while supervisors need to give their brain a rest. Short breaks ensure nobody ends up worn out or dehydrated.
"As a lifeguard, we would rotate every 20-30 minutes with the premise being to give our minds a break and so we could stay fresh. The same thing applies to parental supervision. I need to use the restroom, I need to do other things, I need a break too! So, we give time warnings and take swim breaks. Sometimes the breaks are also unscheduled if I have to make an emergency restroom visit or answer the door, but everyone gets out every time."
Natalie insists that as parent/guardian, you are the best supervisor for your kids. "This may sound harsh, but I don't trust other people to watch my kids in the pool," she says. "It is me or my husband, that is it.
"I see so many events where trust was placed in another person, 'watch my kids while I go do XYZ,' or grandpa took them to the pool or a neighbor invited them over. I may love these people, and they may love my children, but I don't trust them, nor do I want them to have to own that responsibility if something were to happen to one of my kids in their care. It just isn't worth it.
"The same goes for lifeguarded swimming areas. I know I am my kids' primary source of supervision and the lifeguard(s) are there for backup and emergencies. I do not rely on them for basic supervision. I only have two children and I can supervise them much more closely than a lifeguard who has divided attention between 25 or more people."
Normalise wearing a life jacket
Natalie encourages regular use of life jackets, especially in larger groups of children. "Having everyone in one makes it much 'cooler' and doesn't embarrass the littler kids or weaker swimmers."
But when she says life jackets, she means accredited life jackets. "Noodles, Inflatables, baby circles, tubes, and all other items are not safety-related and should not be used or trusted to keep your child safe," she says.
"We see countless videos of kids who flip over in an inflatable ring, can't right themselves and are stuck underwater upside down, or are in arm floaties and can't get their head out of the water because their arms aren't strong enough, or who lose purchase of a kickboard they were holding onto for floatation. Even in a lifejacket, you need to diligently and constantly supervise, as children can get in positions that can still obstruct their airway, especially if they are younger or weaker."
Be real about the dangers
As much as you don't want to ruin your kids' fun, the best way to get them to understand just how dangerous water can be is by being completely honest with them.
Tell them of the drownings you hear about on the news and explain to them just how easy tragedies can happen. Knowing the realities of their own weaknesses, drowning, currents and unexpected situations will help your child grow more vigilant.
Natalie says she regularly speaks to her children about her job and the dangerous situations she has seen. "They know they can't breathe in the water, they know why we take breaks from swimming, they know why they enter the water feet first, they know why we don't play breath-holding games or activities.
"It isn't just because I said so, I try to give them real reasons for my rules. A healthy fear of the water is a good thing."
Look at me!
Your kid loves you and therefore wants to impress you. But sometimes an attempt to show off can lead to dangerous risk-taking.
"Are they just showing me something or are they about to do something risky? There is a difference and I try to talk about good decisions around the water," Natalie says of how phrases like 'watch this' put her on high alert. "I always say we can have fun without being dumb."
See something, say something
Having your kids look out for each other and others. "So often, in drowning investigations we see kids (and adults) swimming over or around someone who is underwater and they don't do anything," Natalie says.
It's important to tell your kids not to assume everyone underwater is playing. If their friend – or anyone they see – goes under, they should start counting so they have an idea of whether or not they need to call for an adult's help.