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A Grandparent's Guide to Water Safety

How to keep grandkids safe at beaches and pools this summer

By Lisa Fields

With the recent sad news about the drowning of former Olympic skier Bode Miller's 19-month-old daughter Emeline during a neighborhood party in California comes a potent reminder that water accidents can happen very quickly.

Water Safety
Credit: Adobe Stock

There’s nothing that kids love more than a day at the pool or beach... and if you suggest a fun-filled, water-logged adventure, your stock may rise in your grandchild’s eyes. But kids are too busy enjoying themselves to think about safety — that’s your responsibility.

“Think about how you will manage things before you allow swimming, and discuss it with your grandchildren before you allow them in the water,” said B. Chris Brewster, a moderator for Water Safety USA, a group of nonprofit and governmental organizations focused on water safety and drowning prevention. “Let them know the rules. Remember, you’re the lifeguard for your grandchildren when you take them swimming.”

If safety is overlooked, a special day can turn tragic, even if lifeguards are present: Drowning is the second-highest cause of unintentional death for children under age 14, with nearly 1,000 kids succumbing annually. Thousands more are rushed to ERs due to near-drownings.

Fortunately, drowning is preventable. Here’s what you should know:

Watch Your Grandchildren Constantly

Designating a water watcher to keep an eye on children at all times can reduce the likelihood of drowning, according to Water Safety USA. A water watcher should be able to rescue someone in distress or alert someone nearby (like a lifeguard) who has the ability to do so.

It’s important to formally designate one water watcher to ensure that someone is doing the job. Take shifts, if need be.

“If everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” Brewster said. “Reports of drowning accidents often involve lots of parents nearby who were distracted by conversation and other activities.”

When you’re the water watcher, don’t chat with friends or check your smartphone.

“It takes less time to drown than finish a conversation or send a text,” said David Hill, a pediatrician in Wilmington, N.C.

Don’t Over-Rely on Lifeguards

The presence of lifeguards may provide a false sense of security, if you decide to lie back and enjoy the sunshine. You still need to watch your grandchildren constantly.

“Even the best lifeguard cannot see everything at all times,” said Tom Gill, spokesperson for the United States Lifesaving Association. “Distractions such as a medical emergency on the beach, multiple victim rescues, patron questions and incidents, along with massive crowds on some beaches, diminish the ability of the lifeguard to maintain constant vigilance on every swimmer.”

Disregard Drowning Stereotypes

Drowning is almost always a silent occurrence, not the loud splashing and shouting often depicted in the movies and on TV. Children slip below the surface without making a sound.

“If you think, ‘I’m going to look up when I hear them drowning, that isn’t going to happen,'" Hill said. “Kids drown silently and quickly. They go under the water, and they never come up.”

People who are drowning rarely call for help.

“They are too busy trying to keep themselves afloat,” Brewster said. “Non-swimmers and poor swimmers who suddenly find themselves in water that is overhead can submerge immediately and silently.”

Stay Within Arm’s Reach of Youngsters

Wear your bathing suit and get in the water with small children. Sitting in a chair at the water’s edge near an inexperienced swimmer isn’t good enough.


“Children who have limited, or no, swimming skills must be within arm’s reach because they can easily slip into water over their head and quickly, quietly submerge,” Brewster said.

Your close presence is even more important at the beach, where rough waves or undertow may knock a child down.

“Small children should never enter ocean or open water by themselves,” Gill said. “The coasts are incredibly dynamic environments that look safe but may have multiple dangers lurking beneath.”

Older Kids Need Monitoring, Too

Just because your older grandchild can beat you in a race across the pool doesn’t mean he’s exempt from your watchful eye. It’s important to keep tabs on all grandchildren.

“Adolescents who are strong swimmers may be able to safely enjoy the water most of the time, but accidents happen,” Brewster said. “Medical issues, trauma from horseplay and other things may cause even a strong adult swimmer to suddenly become incapacitated.”

Your grandchild may be out of his element in the ocean, so it’s crucial to be vigilant at the beach.

“Children and adults who consider themselves good swimmers are not always prepared for the many variables consistent with open-water beaches,” Gill said. “Rip currents, troughs, wave action and drop-offs are just a few of the reasons to carefully watch children as they swim in the ocean.”

Swim Only When Lifeguards Are Present

Unguarded swimming pools can be dangerous, but unguarded beaches are even more deadly. In 2016, 153 people drowned on beaches without lifeguards on duty.

If you get to the beach after hours, don’t allow anyone into the water, not even up to her knees. Your grandchild may be pulled into the surf without anyone nearby to rescue her.

“Lifeguards are trained first responders,” Gill said. “I doubt [anyone] would live in a community without police or fire protection. Why would anyone enter the water without lifeguard protection?”

Take Group Breaks

When you need to go to the bathroom or make a phone call, get your grandchildren out of the water, so you’re certain they aren’t struggling. Insist they come with you, even if they promise to stay dry until you get back.

“Don’t assume they’re running around the pool, or up and down the beach, and not going into the water because you said they shouldn’t go in the water,” Hill said. “They should be in your sight and in your field of attention at all times.”

Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest. Read more of her work at Read More
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