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Preventing Kids from Drowning

Posted on Jun 01, 2020

We live in a community that gives kids and their families year-round access to beaches and parks with ponds and lakes. Many families also have swimming pools. The danger for drowning remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death for children ages 1-4. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Patrick Mularoni, M.D., an Emergency Center physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, provides parents and caregivers with tips to keep kids safe and avoid accidents around water.

Water submersion injuries can lead to death or permanent damage to the brain. Even now with the intense focus on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) we unfortunately are still seeing other conditions continue to present to our Emergency Center. Sadly, one of those that is actually on the rise over the past three months is drowning. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital has seen it's drowning stats double over the three months of March, April and May compared to the same months in 2018 and 2019.

We know that childhood drowning is more common in warm weather states like Florida, but would you say that this increase may be an unintended consequence of our recent stay-at-home orders?

It is hard to know for sure, but we do know that most drownings in children ages 1-4 occur in a pool or spa at the child’s own home. With children and their parents at home more frequently over the past three months, that unfortunately leads to more opportunities for a child to get to the water.

When we look at drowning statistics, over 70% of the time a drowning occurs the child was not expected to be at the pool, meaning they were supposed to be inside their house, but for one reason or another, they are able to get to the pool unsupervised. With parents working from home and most children at home 24 hours a day, you could understand the increased risk of drowning that the stay-at-home orders may bring for children. As parents and caregivers armed with that knowledge, we need to be extra vigilant during this time and the best way to do that is to take a layered approach to protecting children.

You mentioned a layered approach. How does that work?

We need to think of pool safety in multiple layers knowing that if a child gets through one layer there are still other layers to protect them. These layers are:

  1. Caregiver awareness
  2. Measures inside the home
  3. Measures outside the home
  4. Measures in the pool area
  5. Swim lessons

Let’s start with caregiver awareness. If you are at home with your children, you need to know where they are and what they are doing. Most parents report that their child was only out of sight for a few moments when a drowning occurs. Also, if you are out near the pool, you should be actively watching the kids, which means that you need to put away the cell phone. 

With parents working from home, it’s an added distraction. The combination of distracted parents trying to attend virtual meetings and get work done or just worried about their situation can cause them to lose sight of kids who may not see risks. 

Next are measures inside the home. Every home should have childproof locks and an alarm that beeps when doors are opened. This is especially important for a door that could lead to a pool.

If a child does get out the door, you can rely on measures put in place outside the home. If you own a pool, you should install a fence that surrounds all four sides. That means that a door from the house does not open directly to the pool. With that four-sided fence make sure that the gate opens outward. That way if a little one pulls up a chair they still will have problems opening the gate.

You should have other measures in the pool area. The most important is that you don't leave toys or other objects floating around the pool. These are an invitation to children, who may reach for them and fall in.

Finally, spend the time to teach your children to swim. This is the best gift you can give your child. As we open back up, consider formal swim lessons as well. 

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital experts. Visit  each Monday for the latest report.  You also can explore  more advice  from Patrick Mularoni, M.D.  

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