Safe summer splashing

UC Davis pediatric specialists offer tips to keep kids water safe


Temperatures are high, summer is here and the cool, blue waters of swimming pools, rivers and lakes are attracting plenty of swimmers. But this outdoor fun also means the water accident season is upon us. UC Davis emergency room doctors take care of many of the drowning and near-drowning victims in the area. They know from experience that prevention is much easier and more successful than treatment.

Photo of Dr. Pretzlaff © UC Regents"The beginning of summer is a good time for parents to review water safety with their children. While no single measure can guarantee child safety, multiple layers of protection and meticulous supervision are crucial."
— Robert Pretzlaff, chief of critical care medicine, UC Davis Children's Hospital

“Everyone assumes that there's plenty of awareness about swimming safety,” said Robert Pretzlaff, chief of critical care medicine for UC Davis Children's Hospital. “But every year, especially at the beginning of the summer season, our pediatric intensive care unit sees an increase in the number of near-drowning victims. These are frequently heartbreaking cases, where a child has suffered irreversible neurological injuries or, worse, never regains consciousness and dies. And many of these cases could have been prevented.”

Toddlers and teens at high risk

Swimming pools pose a special risk for children under age 4. Experts say that children don't generally splash when they have difficulty in the water, but slip silently under the surface. In most cases, supervising adults report stepping away for less than five minutes.

National statistics reveal that older adolescent boys, ages 15 to 19, also have high rates of drowning. For this group, accidents tend to occur in natural bodies of water, such as lakes, streams or the ocean. Boats are also generally involved in many older adolescent drowning cases, with a vast majority of victims not wearing life jackets. Alcohol, drugs or other risk-taking behaviors are frequently contributing factors for this age group, too.

“The beginning of summer is a good time for parents to review water safety with their children,” said Pretzlaff. “While no single measure can guarantee child safety, multiple layers of protection and meticulous supervision are crucial.”

Swimming safety reminders

Pretzlaff says institutions like the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer a number of important reminders to help keep kids water safe:

  • Completely enclose home pools with at least four-foot fencing that cannot be slipped through or climbed. An iron fence with no decorative cutouts, vertical bars three inches apart, and horizontal bars at least 45 inches apart is recommended.
  • Gates should be self-closing and self-latching with the latches mounted near the top of the fence. While some pool covers and alarms may be helpful, they cannot substitute for adequate fencing. Soft pool covers may actually increase the risk of drowning if a child becomes caught underneath.
  • Supervise children every moment during swimming. Keep a phone and rescue equipment nearby. When finished, take all toys out of the pool area so children aren't tempted to retrieve anything.
  • Owners of home pools should take a basic CPR course, offered periodically by the Red Cross and other area organizations. A quick response can mean the difference between life and death in the event of an accident.
  • Talk with teenagers about the dangers of diving from bridges or rocks when visiting streams or lakes. Discuss how alcohol and drugs cloud judgment and can lead to deadly accidents. Early in the summer, rivers and lakes can be especially dangerous because of their icy cold water temperatures from the runoff of the melting snowpack.
  • Adults must set good examples by also adopting safe practices around water sports. Insist that everyone on a boat wear standard life jackets. Don't mix alcohol with boating or other water activities. Not only can booze cloud judgment, but drinking alcohol on a hot day can easily compound problems and make it easier to become dehydrated.

Operation River Safe

With two of the state's biggest rivers running through Sacramento, it is especially important to pay attention to safety around the area's popular waterways. A new Sacramento County regulation requires all kids 12 and under to wear life jackets when swimming in any county waterway.

The UC Davis Health System's Trauma Prevention Program, with support from Kohl's Cares for Kids, has donated hundreds of life vests to an innovative project called “Operation River Safe,” which is sponsored by the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District. The district lends the life jackets to people at popular river recreation spots for use during the day. Users are asked to return the vests when they're finished so that others can use them, too.

Helping complement the life vest project is the Trauma Prevention Program's “One Size Does Not Fit All” campaign. It's an effort to highlight the importance making sure that safety items such as life jackets are appropriately sized for each user.