Drowning occurs with shocking frequency. According to the CDC, drowning is the leading cause of preventable death in children ages 1-4 in the U.S., and it’s second only to motor vehicle crashes in preventable deaths for kids over 4 years. Sadly, the problem is getting worse over time, as drowning deaths in pools in children ages 5-9 have increased 18 percent in the last 10 years. In Portland, we are blessed with proximity to water, in both natural and man-made settings: waterfalls, the Oregon Coast, lakes and pools. Water is ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, and with the joy and beauty comes the potential for tragedy. So what can we do to prevent drowning and keep our children safe?
- Heads up – constant supervision is key
First and foremost, supervision is the most important aspect of water safety. Data shows that the age of a child is associated with where they are most likely to suffer a drowning or near-drowning. Young children and babies are more likely to drown in bathtubs. Preschool and school-aged children drown most often in pools. Older children are most at risk in natural bodies of water such as lakes and rivers. The common thread that connects these events is a lack of adequate adult supervision, or sometime just a brief lapse in supervision. Drowning happens quickly, and can happen as a result of even a few seconds of inattention, so the supervision must be constant.
- Lock it up (or empty it out)
Preventing pool and spa drownings requires more than just supervision. Proper four-sided fencing with gates that latch, alarms on doors that access pools, and rigid covers should be used around all home pools and spas. Anything that collects water, whether it is a temporary plastic pool, a bucket, tub or other basin, should be emptied of water and stored upside down when it is done being used. Children can drown even in very shallow water – as little as an inch deep.
- Buckle up
To keep children safe around natural bodies of water and while canoeing, kayaking or boating, life jackets must be worn. Water wings or floaties are not a suitable life-saving flotation devices, and children need a life jackets that fit properly to reduce the risk of drowning in both open water and pool settings. Many public lakes, such as Henry Hagg Lake, now have free life jackets available to borrow. These can be the difference between life and death.
- Sign up
Finally, children need to learn to swim. While swim lessons and water safety training have not been shown to prevent drowning for babies and very young children, swim lessons absolutely can help protect school-aged children and equip them with skills that will last a lifetime. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swim lessons for children older than 4 years. The American Red Cross offers online water safety resources that parents and teachers can utilize to teach children about ways to stay safe in and around water. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to learn to swim. Classroom-based or pool-based survival swimming skills are not mandatory in public school curriculums, and this is something that can hopefully be implemented in the future. However, even with swim lessons, it should be reiterated that no child is drown-proof, and even a strong swimmer needs supervision and basic safety measures as discussed above to reduce the risk of drowning.
We must acknowledge the real risk of drowning among children, ensure heightened attention to the need for supervision for babies and children in and the water, and work to incorporate basic water safety practices in the home and our communities. With these efforts, many devastating childhood deaths can and should be prevented.
Laura Waagmeester, M.D.
Resident in Pediatrics
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital
About Dr. Laura Waagmeester: As a native of the Pacific Northwest and a former competitive swimmer, I have spent my life in and around the water – swimming, instructing and lifeguarding. After swimming at the University of Washington and obtaining dual bachelor’s degrees in architecture and psychology, I attended Oregon Health & Science University for medical school. Following this I stayed for residency in Pediatrics at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, where I am now entering my third and final year. I am applying to Pediatrics Emergency Medicine fellowship, where I hope to continue working toward the health and safety of our children. In my spare time I am still active in swimming, as well as triathlons and long-distance running. I have competed in an Ironman Triathlon in Bolton, England, and have so far completed the Portland Bridge Swim – an 11-mile open-water race – twice!