4 swim safety tips from a survival swim expert

More than 10 years ago, my husband and I said “I do” beside a lake in Wisconsin. Then, we vacationed in Southern California, Hawaii and Italy before we settled down to have kids. As we clinked our margaritas or fine wines at idyllic waterside settings, we’d talk about our future family. We imagined a handful of fearless and fun kids that loved the beach and pool just as much as we did.

By 2016, I had been a parent for almost 2 years, yet I had absolutely no idea that drowning was the single greatest risk in our kids’ lives. In 2016, I grieved the loss of a friend’s toddler who reached the water during non-swim time on a family vacation. This led me to discover the rarely discussed statistics around childhood drowning. Our picture-perfect waterside lifestyle, it turns out, was incredibly dangerous to our children.

We enrolled our daughters in self-rescue lessons when they were 10 months and 2 years old. The empowerment they gained from this experience (in addition to the safety skills) turned us into lifelong water safety advocates and huge believers in high-quality survival swim lessons. Our kids became “floaters”—and we ditched the “floaties”. We also founded the CAST Water Safety Foundation, a non-profit with the mission of supporting families to empower children to become safer swimmers sooner.

As we wrangle our kids on fun-filled summer days, it’s critically important to remember that drowning is the single leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, and the third leading cause of death of children ages 5 to 19. Tragically, each year, hundreds of kids are lost during moments that should define their happy childhood summers.

Below, I’ll share everything we’ve learned over the years.

A survival swim expert’s 4 tips for water safety

It’s worth repeating that swim lessons, water supervision, barriers around pools, life jackets on boats and CPR training are incredibly important when it comes to water safety. When focusing specifically on the 1 to 4 age group, there are further measures that can make all the difference in their safety around water.

1. Avoid using “learn to swim” devices in pools

Wearable flotation devices like floaties and puddle jumpers delay the learn-to-swim process and create false confidence in kids. Too many kids think it’s fun and easy to be independent in the same water environment that could later take their life.

Life jackets, in contrast, are important because they can save a life while boating, on piers, or while swimming in natural bodies of water. They should be U.S. Coast Guard-approved for these purposes.

So how do we survive summer without floaties or other “learn-to-swim” devices? If you’re in the water with your child, there is no need for floaties. And we believe that when adults get in the water, it sends the message to non-swimmers that swim time is to be enjoyed only when an adult is in the water too.

2. Reframe supervision as engagement

That brings me to the next tip: Supervision is standing poolside and watching kids while they’re “swimming”. This is fertile ground for parent distraction. Personally, I catch myself attending to another child, wrangling pets, checking my phone or grabbing snacks.

Even if you have supervision superpowers, swimtime supervision doesn’t solve even half of early childhood drownings. Each year, close to 70% of small children who drowned did so during non-swim time. Engagement is getting into the pool with kids holding and playing with them (and watching them of course)!

3. Swim lessons and water competency are vital

All children break rules. When they do, they might make it past barriers, finding water. At this point, their swim skill level is their last resort. Our family chose self-rescue lessons because given the unthinkable but all-too possible situation that a toddler could wander, be curious, or “break” our rules, we as distractible and imperfect humans wanted to be able to buy ourselves time.

Self-rescue lessons ensure potentially life-saving skills as they teach children to find their float from various positions, even fully clothed. Visit castwatersafety.org and NDPA for factors to consider when choosing swim programs.

If swim programs are full for summer, sign up for fall. Your child will still be at risk next summer and off-season lessons are the best time to learn without interference from playtime at the pool.

4. Only swim if you’re well-equipped

If you are embarking on a summer adventure with non-swimmers, and are outnumbered on a hot summer day, skip the pool and floaties and instead play in a sprinkler, water table or splash pad. Grab a chair, a bubbly water, and a friend. Sit back, relax and watch your little monsters enjoy a safe summer day.

9 swim safety quick tips

Below are easy tips that you can use now:

  1. If a child is missing, check the water first.

  2. Remember, a child’s chance of drowning goes up after swim time is over, when water is still near.

  3. Swim together. Pop on a sturdy suit and hang out in the water with your unskilled swimmers.

  4. If everyone is watching the water, nobody is watching the water. Designate a water watcher.

  5. Treat swim time routines as sacredly as bedtime routines; be choosy about who will have an impact on your child’s experience around water.

  6. Take all the photos, but share them later (after all other barriers are in place or even better—when water is nowhere near).

  7. Wear bright to stay in sight. Neon colors contrast with water.

  8. Ensure caretakers know the physical address in the event of a 911 call.

Remember: Water play can be fun for all ages; but keeping everyone safe should be the top priority. Stay within your comfort level—and ensure all your kids’ caregivers are on the same page when it comes to swimming this summer.

A version of this story was originally published on June 22, 2023. It has been updated.