Whether cannonballing in the deep end or splashing in the waves of a large lake, fun in the water is one of the best reasons to live in Michigan.
Unfortunately, water can also be dangerous.
Children are especially vulnerable. Drowning is the number 1 cause of injury from injury in children aged 1 to 4 years and the third leading cause of accidental injury from death under 19 years of age and under.
A handful of simple guidelines can help keep your family safe, says Katelyn Jansheski, injury prevention coordinator at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.
It’s important to understand that a child’s fascination with water is part of the risk. It is up to adults to lead by example for safety and enjoyment.
“Kids are very curious and that’s how they learn,” Jansheski said. “Even if you think they are already safe around the water or not so adventurous, keep talking to them — and make sure someone is always watching them.”
That means involving them in water safety conversations on every outing, understanding that different splash points carry different risks.
Any water is a potential hazard. Children can drown in just 5 cm of water.
But open water is more dangerous than swimming pools. There are waves, tidal waves and currents. Visibility is often poor and hides sudden slopes or submerged rocks and logs. Extreme water temperatures can endanger even the strongest adult swimmers.
Here are some tips to improve water safety:
1. Trust the security experts
Adults should first look for beaches with lifeguards. Once there, follow the hazard warnings. “If lifeguards set up red flags to stop swimming, there’s a reason for it,” Jansheski said.
2. Check Pool Fences
In Michigan, a swimming pool must be surrounded by a sturdy fence at least four feet high. Often homeowners don’t maintain them properly, or get into the habit of leaving gates open. When visiting friends, families or resorts, walk around quickly and make sure the gate is fully functional.
3. Learn how to fit a life jacket
US Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices are required for children in boats. These devices can provide a lot of peace of mind at pools and beaches, but they can be tricky to fit.
Make sure the device is the correct size for your child’s weight. Pull the straps up and then lift them up by the shoulders. If it can reach your child’s chin or ears, it is too big. (Watch this demonstration video for tips.)
4. Know the power – and the limits – of swimming lessons
Ideally, all children should learn to swim. It’s fun, great exercise and builds confidence. But it is important to remember that many good swimmers drown every year. And a child can swim well, but be totally unprepared to save someone else.
For children to be safe in open water, they need to be able to do five things, Jansheski said:
- Jumping over their heads into the water
- Orienting on safety
- Float or tread water
- Combine breathing with forward motion (even if it’s just a dog paddle)
- Leave the water
5. Choose a water viewer
Whether at the beach, pool, or on a boat, social gatherings can distract adults from watching kids. “Appoint someone specifically to watch the kids for 15 minutes, then the next, and so on,” Jansheski said.
This gives the other parents time to socialize, read, check their phones, or relax.
6. Consider taking a course
Many families only get into the water occasionally. But if it’s a constant part of family life — and especially if you have a pool or lake cabin — consider taking basic water rescue classes and a CPR class.
CPR and First Aid classes are available at Spectrum Health. The American Red Cross also offers training in Michigan.
7. Keep an eye on the game
Chicken fights and submerging each other may seem harmless, but they can lead to injuries and drowning. Don’t let water games get too rough, especially for smaller children.
8. Pay attention to close calls
Usually, a child who accidentally goes under water will cough and sputter and then immediately shake it off.
But in very rare cases, children can suffer from dry drowning or secondary drowning, Jansheski said. Although rare, these events can be serious. 24 hours after the incident, be alert for persistent coughing, difficulty speaking, lethargy, drowsiness, and vomiting. At any sign that the child is having trouble breathing, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
9. Revise the rules—often
Get ready to repeat yourself as you present these rules and guidelines to children. They will probably need to hear it more than once.
“It’s easy for parents to think that children will remember safety rules from day to day,” Jansheski said. “But they don’t.”