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OHSU Doernbecher offers water safety tips to help prevent drowning

Oregon children suffer more drownings than other West Coast states, the national average; ahead of the July 4 holiday, pediatricians say close supervision, other measures can help keep them safe
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Man and young girl smiling in pool; girl wearing goggles and using pool noodle while swimming
Children ages of 1 to 4 who have had water safety training or swimming lessons are much less likely to drown than those who have not. (Getty Images)

As temperatures rise this summer and the July 4 holiday approaches, many families plan to spend more time enjoying Oregon’s many outdoor opportunities. Before heading out, OHSU Doernbecher experts urge parents and caregivers to have a water safety plan to prevent drowning tragedies.

Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., F.A.A.P. (OHSU)
Benjamin Hoffman, M.D., F.A.A.P. (OHSU)

Any body of water poses a real and constant threats to kids, says Ben Hoffman, M.D., professor of pediatrics and medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Wherever children choose to cool off this summer, whether that’s at a backyard pool or a natural body of water, it’s important to be prepared.

“Unfortunately, I have met many families whose child slipped out of view for a matter of seconds and drowned — it’s heartbreaking. These few seconds often mean the difference between life and death for a child,” says Hoffman, who is also president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We want to ensure parents and caregivers have the information they need to prevent water-related tragedy. It starts with constant, close and capable adult supervision around any water activity, but that is never enough.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more children ages 1 to 4 die from drowning than any other cause. And in Oregon, drowning rates are the highest on the West Coast, and well above the national average: Oregon children drown at a 26% higher rate compared with the U.S. overall; for Oregon children ages 5 to 18, that jumps to a 68% higher rate. Drowning can happen to anyone, any time there is access to water, and it often occurs silently and in a matter of seconds.

Hoffman and the American Academy of Pediatrics 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.
  • 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. Programs like the Safe Kids Water Watcher can help ensure that every child has the adult supervision they need.
  • 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. This includes boating, floating on innertubes or other things. Those who lack strong swim skills may also want to wear life jackets at pools or water parks. 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 environments. Organizations, including American Red Cross and American Heart Association, offer CPR training courses with both online and in-person options.
  • 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. Experts also recommended emptying above-ground pools, including small plastic wading pools, when not in use, as well as removing pool ladders. These steps create additional barriers to further prevent unintentional access to water.
  • Stay aware of conditions: Natural water sources, like lakes, rivers and oceans, are different than swimming pools and may have currents, waves or decreased water visibility — all factors that can increase the risk of drowning. Stay aware of the conditions where children plan to swim, and always and check the weather before going in, because conditions can change quickly.  

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

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