Swimming Pool Safety

Whether it’s a backyard oasis or the gem of the community park, a swimming pool is a great place for summer fun. But it’s important to remember that swimming pools can be dangerous, especially for children.

Children ages 1 to 4 are more likely than any other age group to die from accidental drowning. Most of these drownings occur in residential pools, often in the child’s own backyard. Many parents are unaware that toddlers can drown in as little as an inch or two of water. As children get older, they become more confident in the water — sometimes too confident. Older kids may fool around, try fancy dives, and put themselves at risk.

Alarmingly, it can take as little as 20 seconds for a child to get into serious trouble, according to retired Coast Guard Commander David Smith. In one close call that occurred in the state of Washington, a 7-year-old boy nearly drowned in the space of a few minutes at a church camp swimming pool. The boy had insisted on going to the pool even though he didn’t really know how to swim. His father and two of his siblings had started off toward the water, and his mother was applying sunscreen to her daughter’s shoulders when her son trotted off behind his father.

With her daughter in tow, the mother headed off for the pool. She met her husband along the way, but her son wasn’t with him. “By this time, I got a really bad feeling in my stomach,” says the mother, who wishes to remain anonymous. Although the incident took place more than 15 years ago, she recalls the moment as if it were yesterday.

When she arrived at the crowded pool, she saw her son’s socks, shoes, and shirt, but not the boy. She knew something was wrong. She walked the perimeter of the pool, looking in, but still couldn’t see her child. Then a teenage boy climbed out of the deep end and ran toward the lifeguard, who was chatting with friends. Instantly, she knew what was happening. “It’s probably the worst feeling in the whole world you could possibly have,” she says.

The mother later learned that her son attempted to do a cannonball dive and had hit his head on the diving board. Unconscious, he had sunk to the bottom of the pool, and no one noticed. Chemicals had recently been added to the water, and the pool’s bottom wasn’t visible.

The lifeguard dove into the water and pulled the child to the surface. He was unconscious, his skin blue. The lifeguard began efforts to resuscitate the boy, who was quickly evacuated by helicopter to a children’s hospital. There the mother was told that her son’s chances of survival were no better than 50 percent. In a coma for six days, he miraculously made a full recovery.

What can I do to prevent drowning?

First and foremost, never leave a child unsupervised in or near a pool. Even 20 seconds is too long for a child to be alone in the water.

Learning how to swim is the best defense against drowning. The National Safety Council recommends that children begin taking swimming lessons at 3 years old. Even if your child knows how to swim, an adult should always be present to supervise. And as the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) says, if you can’t swim, don’t float. Nonswimmers who use rafts or other personal flotation devices can become separated from them and drown.

Parents can help prevent drownings by preparing themselves for an emergency. Those who have a pool — or who take their children to pools, lakes, or the ocean — should know how to swim, how to pull a drowning child from a pool if no lifeguard is present (see below), and how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The American Red Cross recommends CPR training for any person in charge of caring for a child.

To prevent children from entering a pool area unsupervised, the USLA says, a pool should be fenced at least 4 feet high with self-locking gates. Fences could prevent an estimated 50 to 90 percent of childhood pool drownings, according to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, California. And while childless pool-owners may see no reason to erect a protective barrier, neighborhood children can easily wander into areas where they shouldn’t.

For extra safety, the Red Cross recommends a few additional precautions:

  • Don’t leave objects, such as boxes or benches, outside a pool fence that could enable children to climb over.
  • Make sure fences have openings no more than 4 inches wide.
  • If your house borders one side of the pool, make it a practice to lock the doors that lead to the pool area.

Even with these precautions, parents and pool owners need to check regularly to see if the pool fence has deteriorated and to verify that the locks are still working. In a recent tragic incident, a 3-year-old boy drowned in the backyard pool while his mother was making dinner. Though the pool had a fence around it, investigators found holes that a small child could squeeze through. The lock on the sliding glass door leading to the backyard was broken.

While pool covers may sound like a good idea, owners should not depend on them for protection. They are not adequate substitutes for fences, because children can drown in the small amount of water that collects on pool covers.

Pool drains can also be hazardous to children. Pumps draw water from a pool drain through suction, and suction increases if the drain is blocked. For that reason, children should never go near such drains, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to avoid any possibility that they could become trapped underwater by the drain’s suction.

The National SAFE KIDS Campaign urges parents to install multiple drains in pools to minimize the suction at any one location. Drain covers should be secure and have no cracks, and you should know where to locate the manual cut-off switch for the pool’s pumps, in case of emergency.

How can I tell if a child is drowning?

Children who are drowning may not be able to call out for help. Watch for these signs of trouble:

  • A child looks tired while swimming.
  • Only the child’s head is visible.
  • The child is splashing, but sinking.

What should I do if a child is drowning?

The Red Cross recommends keeping a long sturdy pole or a plastic ring buoy attached to a rope by every pool. If a child is still conscious and able to grab hold of something, you can quickly pull her to safety. If you don’t have any lifesaving gear handy, you may be able to improvise with a towel, a pool noodle, or just about anything else a child can grab onto.

Even if you’re a strong swimmer, you shouldn’t jump into the water yourself unless you’ve been trained in water rescue — or you just don’t have any other choice. Swimming with a flailing child is no easy task. Because a panicked child may grab you around the neck, always attempt to turn him around in the water so that you can swim holding him facing away from you.

After removing the child from the water, take the following steps:

  • Have someone call 911 immediately, even if you think the child cannot be saved.
  • If you suspect the child has injured his neck or back, move him as little as possible.
  • Lay him on a flat, firm surface.
  • If the child isn’t breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
  • If there is no pulse, administer CPR if you have had CPR training.

Further Resources

Consumer Product Safety Commission

American Red Cross

National Safety Council

United States Lifesaving Association

Centers for Disease Control

American Academy of Pediatrics


Orange County Fire Authority. Water Safety: Drowning Prevention Tips. http://www.ocfa.org/pages/ocfa.asp?filename=st-drowning.asp

National Safety Council. Water Safety Fact Sheet. April 2009. http://www.nsc.org/news_resources/Resources/Documents/Water_Safety.pdf

United States Lifesaving Association. General Information on Drowning. http://www.usla.org/PublicInfo/safety_guide.asp

Centers for Disease Control. Unintentional Drowning: Fact Sheet. June 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html

American Red Cross. Helpful Water Safety Tips. July 2009.

Smith, David. The Legal Expert Network. Whats your H20 (Safety) IQ? http://www.expertnetwork.com/sports&recreation_expert.htm

D’Allesandro, Donna and Lindsay Huth. Virtual Pediatric Hospital: Pediatrics Common Questions, Quick Answers: Near Drowning. June 2002.

National SAFE KIDS Campaign. Water Safety Tips. http://www.safekids.org/tier3_cd.cfm?content_item_id=352&folder_id=181

SAFE KIDS USA. Drowning Prevention Fact Sheet. 2009. http://www.safekids.org/our-work/research/fact-sheets/drowning-prevention-fact-sheet.html

Nemours Foundation, First Aid & Safety: About CPR. http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/emergencies/cpr.html

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