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OHSU Doernbecher offers water safety tips as risks of childhood drownings increase

Nearly 70% of residential drownings occur when it is not swim time, pediatric safety expert warns
A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are learning how to swim at the public pool. One little girl is holding onto a kick board and is swimming through the water.
Children between the ages of 1 and 4 years who have had water safety training or swimming lessons are much less likely to drown than those who have not. (Getty Images)

Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children ages 1 to 4, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and, as temperatures rise this summer, so do the risks of preventable harm.

With most community pools closed during the pandemic, more families came to rely on backyard pools or open bodies of water to beat the heat. While these are great options for fun and recreation, the presence of any body of water poses real and constant threats to kids. 

close-in head shot of Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., F.A.A.P., a smiling man in glasses.
Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., F.A.A.P.


Nearly 70% of residential drownings occur when it is not swim time,” says Ben Hoffman, M.D., professor of pediatrics and medical director of the OHSU Doernbecher Injury Prevention Program. “Constant, close and capable adult supervision is essential to preventing water-related tragedy. However, supervision can be insufficient. Kids are quick, curious and impulsive. I have met dozens of families whose child slipped out of view for a matter of seconds and drowned. Unfortunately, these few seconds often mean the difference between life and death for a child.”

Hoffman and the AAP recommend that families use "layers" of protection to help lower the risk of drowning and other water-related injuries in children, including:

  • Swim skills: Swimming lessons, specifically water safety skills, are an essential component of any water safety plan and should be considered for children older than 1. Children between the ages of 1 and 4 who have had water safety training or swimming lessons are much less likely to drown than those who have not.

    “Not all lessons are created equal,” says Hoffman. “Parents may need to try several before finding the right fit for their child.”
  • Supervision: When young children are near water -- whether it is a pool, river or even a bathtub – a capable, attentive adult should be present and within arm’s reach. Even when a trained lifeguard is present, each child should also be constantly supervised by a designated adult without distractions such as books or phones.
  • Life jackets: A properly fitted, U.S .Coast Guard-approved life jacket should always be worn when in, on, or near natural bodies of water, such as lakes or rivers. Those who lack strong swim skills should also wear life jackets when at a pool or water park. Inflatable “floaties” and rings are toys, and should never be a substitute for an approved life jacket.
  • Be prepared: Parents and caregivers should consider CPR training to help keep children safe around water or other dangerous instances.
  • Barriers: Homes with in-ground or above-ground pools or ponds, of any size, should install a four-sided fence with secure closures. Door and pool alarms may also help to alert adults if a child comes too close to unsupervised water.  

    Hoffman suggests emptying above ground pools, including small plastic wading pools, when not in use, as well as removing pool ladders. These steps create additional barriers that will further prevent unintentional access to water.

Additional information about water and sun safety can be found on the OHSU Doernbecher Injury Prevention Program website.

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