How do I keep my kids safe at the pool?

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For some people, it's a rite of spring: the first plunge into the backyard pool, opening day at the local water park. Others splash year-round in indoor pools or tropically warm outdoors. Either way, swimming is a favorite way to stay in shape, the third most popular type of exercise in the United States [source: National Sporting Goods Association]. Swimming is especially good exercise for children. It works all of the major muscle groups and improves cardiovascular health. Unlike many other sports, it doesn't stress the bones and joints in ways that could damage still-developing skeletal systems, particularly in overweight children.

Yet, even for youngsters who take to the water like sea otters, drowning and injury are real threats that can turn a fun-filled outing into a frightening, even fatal ordeal. Drowning is the second-leading cause of injury-related death in children aged 1 to 14 [source: Kansas Journal of Medicine]. Those under age 5 are especially vulnerable, with a death rate twice that of older children [source: Safe Kids USA]. About 300 toddlers and preschoolers drown in pools and spas every year, and another 3,000 are hospitalized with swimming-related injuries [source: Consumer Product Safety Commission].

For survivors and their families, the outlook can be grim. Caring for a near-drowning survivor who suffers brain damage can cost up to $180,000 a year [source: Kansas Journal of Medicine]. Of course, the price paid in grief and emotional trauma can't be counted.

Other unseen danger lurks in the form of disease-causing viruses and bacteria in the pool water, often carried by the swimmers themselves. These microbes can result in irritation and infection of the eyes, ears, lungs and digestive tract. Outdoor pools also carry added risk: The combination of standing water, bare skin and food at pool parties lures mosquitoes and some types of bees. Their bites and stings can make you miserable. If they spread encephalitis or cause allergic reactions, they can kill.

These facts should give you pause. However, while accidents will happen, they don't have to happen to you. You can create a safe environment through "layers of protection," a favorite term of safety experts. That includes a hazard-free setting, proper equipment and safety-savvy kids. In this article, we break down each of those components, starting with another old saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Pool Safety Precautions

It's all right to have fun at the pool, but make sure adult supervisors cut down on dangerous horseplay.
It's all right to have fun at the pool, but make sure adult supervisors cut down on dangerous horseplay.
David De Lossy/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Trouble can brew in your own backyard -- or your neighbor's -- when it comes to backyard pools. To keep the lid on trouble, try these pre-emptive measures:

  • Supervise kids constantly and vigilantly. This is the absolute, essential rule for children's safety. Death by drowning can be frighteningly swift and silent. Ideally, one adult should be in the pool, with another within sight and hearing, to detect any sign that a child may be in trouble.
  • Keep a clean pool. Learn how to use disinfectants and how to check for contaminants in water. Remind swimmers not to use your pool if they're sick or have been sick recently, especially if they suffered from diarrhea.
  • Discourage biting and stinging insects. Standing water is a favorite mosquito breeding ground; don't let water accumulate on pool covers or near the pool. Keep food and drinks, especially sugary stuff, covered when not serving to avoid attracting bees. Remember that insect repellents, if used, must be reapplied after swimming.
  • Remove water toys when the pool isn't in use. Children may fall into the pool while playing with or retrieving the toys.
  • Remove climbable objects surrounding aboveground pools when not in use. This includes not only pool steps and ladders, but any object a resourceful child might use to gain access, such as lawn chairs and riding toys.
  • Learn CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and first-aid techniques. Opportunities to learn life-saving skills abound. Besides traditional classes, you can buy CPR kits for at-home learning or download training apps for your smartphone. Check with an area hospital or nearest chapter of the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross for details.
  • Teach kids how and when to use 9-1-1. They'll need to know their full name and address and how to describe the emergency. Contact your local police or fire department to learn about teaching programs. Some emergency service providers give lessons at schools and safety fairs, letting kids make practice calls.
  • Keep a cordless or cell phone on hand. A waterproof cell phone case gives added protection.

Faithfully following these rules is one layer of protection, but it can still leave safety gaps. The next page describes equipment that helps to fill them.

Pool Safety Equipment

Every pool should have a life preserver nearby.
Every pool should have a life preserver nearby.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Safety equipment is most important pool accessory you can buy. Some of those listed below are required by state and local law. Definitions of what's acceptable vary, however; homeowners should check with building officials to make sure they're in compliance.

  • Pool cover -- Coverings are of two basic types: solid vinyl sheets and polypropylene mesh. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Both should be equipped with durable metal fittings. Look for coverings that meet performance standards set by ASTM International, an organization that sets criteria for materials and products.
  • Fences and gates -- Close off the pool's open sides with fences at least 4 feet (1.23 meters) high. Gates should be self-closing and self-latching, with the latch out of a child's reach. Gates that open outward (away from the pool, toward the unrestricted area) are a particular challenge for toddlers, who try to open doors by pushing rather than pulling.
  • Alarms -- Gates and doors with access to the pool should be equipped with alarms. The pool itself can be outfitted as well. Choose a pool alarm that's triggered by subsurface activity, not merely surface waves, which can be caused by the wind.
  • Flotation devices -- This includes both a throwable life preserver and a personal flotation device (PFD), such as a vest or jacket. Special features on PFDs for young children include a head support to keep their face above the water's surface and a handle for hoisting them out of the pool. Choose one that fits the child's weight range. Also, check that it's approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. An alternative is a flotation or swimming aid, a foam-padded suit designed to improve stability and buoyancy as children learn to swim. These aren't PFDs, however. Inflatable rafts and toys or water wings aren't reliable, either, because they can deflate or slip away.
  • Shepherd's crook -- Safety experts recommend "touch" supervision, having an adult within reach of a child at all times. When that's not possible, this simple device, a metal or plastic semicircular loop that attaches to a long pole, can be a lifesaver.

Even if your own pool is accident-resistant, children may still encounter dangerous swimming situations. Read the next page for rules that help kids watch out for themselves and their friends.

Pool Safety Rules

Smart swimming habits start at home. The best assurance that children will follow your words of wisdom is to set an example. If you're not a swimmer, showing respect for the risks and the knowledge of experts in other situations promotes the same attitude when kids take to the water.

  • Use the pool only when an adult is present. For your part, make sure the adult is trustworthy and trained for emergencies.
  • No horseplay in or around the pool. Pushing, splashing and other boisterous play can get out of hand. Children (and adults) may not distinguish between squeals of delight and screams of panic.
  • Get inside if a storm threatens. Water and wet swimmers draw lightning.
  • Always swim with a buddy. As with adult supervision, try to make sure the buddy is not a thrill seeker who'll push companions to take risks.
  • Never drink pool water. Swimmers with poor hygiene can spread disease-causing germs, some of which can survive several days -- even in properly chlorinated water.
  • Don't use friends' swimsuits or gear. Again, personal items can carry harmful germs.
  • Watch for stinging and biting insects. Teach children to recognize and respect wasps and bees. Also, teach them to respond calmly if a biting bug menaces by either walking away or lightly brushing it off their skin.
  • Stay away from the drain. Federal law requires that all public pools be equipped with drain covers and devices or systems that protect swimmers from the powerful suction of the pool's pump (a danger called entanglement). Every new drain cover must meet a similar standard. Private pools installed before 2008 don't have to be upgraded, though.

These measures may seem to eliminate every danger. Yet there's always that one-in-a-thousand case where the safeguards fail. If a child goes missing, check the pool first. The few minutes it takes can save the life of a child and a lifetime of pain and remorse for a family.

Related Articles

More Great Links

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