• When I was nine, my parents took my younger sister, who was 3 at the time, and I to swim at Lake Mead near Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. It was a gorgeous lake and the warm temperature made it perfect for swimming. My parents were preparing the BBQ and unloading supplies from the station wagon while my sister and I played in the sand. After a few minutes of being enthralled in my sand castle, I asked my sister to hand over another shovel, but she didn’t respond.  I looked around and then looked over to my parents and she wasn’t there. So, I screamed “HELP!”  We all started to look for her frantically. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a hand in the water, splashing briefly and then disappear under water, just ten feet offshore. I ran over, reached down and grabbed my sister’s little hand and pulled her out of the water. Her face was slightly blue and she was not breathing. Luckily my dad rushed over and was able to render first aid. She coughed up a lot of water and then began to breathe on her own. That incident scared the daylights out of me and I felt helpless because I was just a kid and didn’t know what to do. On that day I vowed to learn first aid (See Playdate article Teaching Kids First Aid and CPR) for myself.

    Safety tips are great and are helpful but my best line of defense was to make sure my children could hold their own in the water

    As a result of that experience, I’m probably a little more paranoid with my own children than the average parent.  One of my biggest fears is that one of my children will fall into a pool or deep body of water while unsupervised. Of course, I do my best to watch over them and take preventative measures (i.e., pool gates, bathtub precautions, etc.) but we all know that somehow accidents still manage to happen.  In order to reduce some of my anxiety about this I have done my best to make sure that my kids are water-safe at the youngest age possible. Safety tips are great and are helpful but my best line of defense was to make sure my children could hold their own in the water. Statistics show that, in the United States, over 1000 children (18 and under) die per year as a result of drowning.

    Just to clarify, the level of water safety I’m talking about is basic water skills.  My goal is that if one of my little ones were to fall into the water s/he would know how to, at minimum, roll on to his/her back to keep their head above water or be able to tread water to get to safety. That’s it! Formal swimming lessons are great but can be expensive. So, below are some tips I have used to get my children ‘water safe’ on my own starting as early as 9-12 months of age.  I guess I should put a disclaimer here that you have to be ‘Water Safe’ on your own before you can teach others. Sounds crazy but I have adult friends who are not and for some reason (probably some past trauma) refuse to learn. The steps are as follows;

    • Basic Rules – This if for the children once they are conversational.  I always tell them my expectations and go over how important it is to follow the rules. We discuss not going in the pool without adult supervision. Not running around the pool because they may slip, no diving in the shallow end, no peeing in the pool, etc. You can add specific rules as needed.
    • Small Steps – Don’t throw your kids in the water to see how they’ll do. My dad did it with me and it doesn’t work! All it did was turn me off from swimming and made me run any time we were in the vicinity of a body of water. It took me ages to get over that fear.  So I start off with my kids by the steps where they can stand and get used to the water. Then, from behind, I hold them under their armpits and take them around the pool. I start off with them facing the wall about an arm’s-length away. They can just reach out and grab the wall. That’s where I like to start and then slowly create more distance until they are able to jump into the pool and swim to safety on their own.
    • Doggie Paddle – This is the basic and probably most innate water survival skill a child should have. I show my kids outside the water what I expect them to do. Usually I lie down on my back on the floor or a bed to show them the range of motion. I discuss proper leg kicks and circular hand motions for the most effective buoyancy. Then I have them demonstrate it for me outside the pool. They build up their kicking strength by holding on to the side of the pool or using a kick board if they are a little older. The final step, before I release them in small spurts, is to have them paddle with both their hands and legs while I’m holding them by the waist.
    • Holding their Breath – This is a crucial step. We start slowly by playing a game of blowing bubbles in the pool (from their mouth, that is. Gross, I know!) with their face slightly submerged. Then they graduate to dunking their entire head under water very briefly while holding their breath and then opening their eyes. Proper breathing techniques will help them relax. I have them open their eyes briefly (not in salt water, of course) under water to show them that they will be okay and can continue to paddle even if water gets in their eyes.
    • Warm Water – I can’t emphasize this enough! Make it fun for them to be in the water. No one wants to swim in frigid water.  If the water is too cold you’ll get them in there but they will not want to stay there long. You can sign up at a public pool, preferably indoor (like the YMCA or a gym) where the temperature is controlled so you can focus on the lesson. If you have your own pool or can use a friend’s, raise the temperature during lesson times.  The bill might be costly – offer to pitch in if you are using a friend’s pool, but it is well worth the cost.
    • Let them Push the Limits – This is ‘Reverse Psychology.’ Of course, you want your kids to jump in and get going right away. However, it works better when they initiate or push the limits themselves. So, as I stand behind them holding them close to the wall, I tell them that eventually we will increase the distance but they will tell me when.  It may take some time, but the first time they ask to go back a little I always say, “No that’s too far,” and then take them about half the distance they request. That way they have a better chance of succeeding (positive reinforcement) and they want to immediately try it again. They become proud and almost see it as a game– they are trying to impress me. Of course, I’m happy and want to push them further, but I don’t show it and let them increase the distance.
    • Consistency – It is best to begin teaching them for a consistent period of time — consider allocating about 15-30 per session. Ideally, it would be every other day, but at least twice a week for a period of one month.  That will give them time to build and reinforce their skills. It’s much like riding a bike – once they get it down, they’ll know it and will always be able to retain it.

    The younger you start with your kids the better.  Remember never leave your children by a pool unattended. Even when they start getting it down at first, you never know what can happen. Kids can get tired or simply forget what to do because they are nervous.  Nervous and apprehensive children will build their confidence gradually.  But be wary of the overconfident children who just want to take off and go because you’ve done such a great job with them. They may think they have it down and want to try it while you’re not around before they’re actually ready. Investing this time in your kids will not only give you peace of mind and build their confidence, but it’s also a great way of bonding!