Why Kids Drown in Kiddie Pools

Why Kids Drown in Kiddie Pools

Summer’s here. We’re back in the pool, lake, ocean, or river. But the carefree days of our seemingly endless summers are long gone. Any of us with small children are keenly aware of the risks of drowning for our little ones. And regardless of your views on the Casey Anthony case, and what caused little Caylee’s death, even the notion that children can drown in pools of any shape or size means that we have good reason to be worried and vigilant.

Even the kids who are ‘water safe’ really aren’t, until they are old enough to lifeguard– mid to late teens for most. It’s not the swimming ability alone that makes a child safe, but the ability to reason, recognize danger, and watch out for the safety of others are what makes one truly safe in the water. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children ages one to 15 years in the U.S., and the highest risk group is boys under age five. Over half of these fatalities occur in home pools.

When we think of pool risks, we think of the big pools, complete with deep-ends, diving boards, and swim parties. But did you know that over 10% of pool-related deaths in young children occur in what are best known as ‘kiddie pools’? These include inflatables, plastic wading pools, and larger above-ground pools. I know what you’re thinking. It’s those large above-ground pools, with five to six feet of water that must really be the culprits. No. The average depth of water in which these kids die is 18 inches. That’s right: the average childhood drowning death occurs in one and half feet of water. And, yes, kids have drowned in as little as 2 inches of water.

A recent study in the journal Pediatrics, the most respected journal in the field of pediatrics, documented, for the first time, that shallow pool drownings are actually frighteningly frequent causes of infant and toddler deaths. Besides showing the obvious– that these drownings occur in young children, primarily in the summer months, and primarily at home, the authors also shed some very important light on these horrific scenes. It turns out that over half of these events take place when a child is either unsupervised, or has had a lapse in supervision. A lapse can be anything from the adult falling asleep, going in to the house to answer the telephone, doing chores, or chatting with a friend. Another startling fact: fewer than 20% of adults instituted CPR on the child prior to arrival of an ambulance.

Many of us can smugly think to ourselves: I would never let this happen to my child. Don’t be so smug. The study authors found that, while prevention is the number one way to save our kids from drowning, there is no sure fire method of prevention. The authors suggest that we consider ‘layers’ of prevention, since no singular method is fool-proof, not even eagle-eye supervision. If we consider implementing several of these measures, we are providing the safety our kids really need:

-All pools, even the above-ground ones, need pool fencing.

-Pool fencing should be at least four feet high, non-climbable, and have no opening under the fence.

-Pool gates should be self-closing and self-latching.

-Above-ground pool ladders should either be removed when the pool is not in use, or locked.

-Toys should be kept out of pools when not in use.

-Kiddie/wading pools should be emptied when not in use.

-CPR training is a plus, with refresher courses before swimming season for all adults.

-Emergency telephone numbers, CPR instructions, life-preservers, and life jackets should be available near pools.

-Life preservers are not to be used as pool toys.

-A telephone should be brought outside when children are swimming, in case emergency personnel need to be called. A land-line is better than a cell phone, making it easier for emergency personnel to track your location.

-Indoor high locks should be installed on doors, so that children can not go outside without an adult opening the door.

-Door alarms can alert an adult that someone, kid or adult, has gone outside.

As parents, our concerns about pool safety are always heightened in the summer months. This concern usually focuses on ‘deep’ pools in homes and in public. There is so little information out there in the media and consumer education campaigns regarding ‘small’ pool safety. But clearly these seemingly ‘safe’ pools can also pose a risk. There is no magic bullet to prevent these horrors, so stock your safety arsenal with layers of prevention, so that summer fun doesn’t turn tragic.

For more information, see: Pediatrics 2011;128:45-52.