I’ve done it more than once.
My two preschool-age children are happily splashing around in the wading pool just outside the screen door to our backyard when something calls me inside. A ringing phone, a buzzing oven timer, a lemonade request from one of the kids.
I dart into the house to fetch the phone, take out the cookies or fill cups with a mixture of water and lemonade (shh, don’t tell them), and dash back outside to watch my goofy kids play pirates or dinosaur scientists.
They’ve always been fine. But tragedy could have struck while I was gone.
A new study of childhood submersion incidents in portable, above-ground pools – the first ever of its kind in the United States – found that 209 children 11 years old and younger died in portable pools and 35 more were injured from 2001 to 2009. The study was published online in Pediatrics recently and will be in print soon.
Researchers, using data compiled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, also found that most of the time – 64 percent to be exact – an adult was supervising the child when the submersion event occurred, and 73 percent of the time the event took place in the child’s own yard.
That’s just in portable pools.
Every day, about 10 people die from accidental drowning in the United States and of those, two are children 14 or younger, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 14, the CDC reports.
And they’re among the most gut-wrenching rescues firefighters and first responders perform.
Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Assistant Chief Dale Turner vividly remembers one such call – more than 15 years ago. This one had a happy ending.
He was working as a captain at a fire station in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood. A 5-year-old boy fell into a pool while reaching for a ball bobbing on the water’s surface. The child had gotten past the safety precautions in place at the home – his parents, the sliding glass door, the pool’s fence.
“They had pulled the child out of the pool and started rescue breathing before we got there,” Turner said. “In about five minutes, we were able to get pulses and breathing back.”
It happens in an instant and it happens to the best of parents. Including Turner.
His two boys, who were about 3 and 5 years old at the time, were playing at their grandparents’ house when his youngest son ran up and said “Hey, Grandpa, my brother is in the pool.”
They found Turner’s older son, who’d just started swim lessons, staring up at them from the bottom of the pool. The boy was fine, but Grandpa and Grandma were shaken.
“It happens so fast,” Turner said.
In Sacramento County, 53 children and young adults ages 24 and younger drowned between 2005 and 2009. That averages out to about 10 deaths per year. And assuming a majority of those drownings happened during the 12 weeks of summer, that’s about one death per week.
Statewide, 740 children and youths under 24 years old drowned during that same period.
The key to keeping children water-safe – be it the bathtub, a wading pool or an in-ground swimming pool – is supervision, said Dr. Angela Rosas, department chief of pediatrics for Sutter Memorial Hospital.
Children can drown within four to six minutes. Even if a child survives a submersion, if oxygen is cut off for five to six minutes, damage is beginning to occur to the brain, she said.
On average, of four children who experience submersion incidents, one will die, two will have severe neurological damage and one might escape without injury, said Rosas, who chairs the Sacramento County Child Death Review Team.
“It’s a very common scenario that parents just took their eyes off the child briefly and the child drowned,” she said. “It can happen at a party when there are several eyes on the child. The key to prevention in situations like this is supervision.”
When children are in the pool, designate an adult as a water watcher.
“Not talking on the cellphone, not having a drink,” Rosas specified. “Just watching the children, all the children, in the pool or potentially coming into the pool.”
Barriers also need to be in place around pools. Wading pools and above-ground pools need to be treated just like in-ground pools.
Swim lessons also can help, she said.
While there used to be controversy about whether teaching swim lessons to children younger than 5 was helpful, experts now think it helps kids become adjusted to the water and may slow them down in terms of drowning, Rosas said. But lessons aren’t a panacea, she cautioned.
“You cannot drownproof a toddler,” she said. “It doesn’t supplant the supervision that has to be on a child.”
Swim lessons can start younger than you may think. Julie Schiess, an Infant Swim Resource instructor in Lodi, Calif., teaches babies as young as 6 months old a survival back float technique. That way, a child who falls into the water will instinctively flip onto his back and breathe and rest until someone picks him up.
“Once they’re crawling, the risk begins,” she said.
The swim lessons, which typically last from two to six weeks, also teach more than just survival and how to swim to safety.
“It teaches confidence in the water and that then builds the child’s ability to swim and perform,” Schiess said.
Though Schiess specializes in teaching kids from 6 months to 6 years, it’s never too late to learn to swim.
The older the child, the quicker they learn, she said.
Private swim lessons aren’t cheap, however. Lessons with Schiess run about $125 per week.
When I enrolled my children in small-group lessons this summer it was $165 per child for a seven-day course.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. My children can swim underwater until they reach a step or wall and emerge safely from the water. And their confidence has improved dramatically.
The expense meant we didn’t eat out for a while, but it was an investment in my children’s lives. Life insurance, if you will.
But the latest study on portable pools has served as a wake-up call. While I trust in my children’s swimming ability, I will never again run inside the house or flip through Bon Appetit while they’re splashing in the wading pool.
After all, my supervision is the best insurance.
More advice on reducing drowning risk:
• Supervise children: A responsible adult should watch children at all times when they’re in the water. Supervisors of preschool children should be close enough to reach out and touch the child.
• Buddy up: Always swim with another person and select public pools and sites that have lifeguards when possible.
• Learn CPR: Take a cardiopulmonary resuscitation class or review an online tutorial, such as those through the American Heart Association, www.heart.org.
• Use life jackets, not air-filled toys: Foam “noodles,” “water wings” or inner tubes aren’t designed to keep swimmers safe. Life jackets are. Many fire districts have a life jacket loan program. Go to http://www.boatus.com/foundation/ljlp/ for more information.
• Nix the alcohol: Avoid drinking before or during swimming and while supervising children in the water.
• Learn to swim: Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages 1 to 4 years old, the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports. For Infant Swim Resource class information and locations, go to www.infantswim.com.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
– Niesha Lofing