Written by Sarah Hunstead, words via our education partners, Parent TV.
Summer is upon us, and for many of us, summer in Australia = swimming. For kids, it might be in the backyard pool while the grown-ups cluster around the barbecue, down at a nearby creek or waterhole with a death-defying rope swing, at the beach or the local aquatic centre (with ice cream as a mandatory inclusion!). Wherever it is, we love the water and it’s a practical way to keep ourselves and our kids cool in our climate.
Many Australian children start swimming lessons as babies or toddlers, and for good reason, too – drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional death for Australian children. But, no matter how early they begin swim training, no child is immune to the risk of drowning, says Sarah Hunstead, Emergency Paediatric Nurse and ParentTV expert. In fact, child drownings happen faster, more frequently and in ways that some parents may find surprising. ‘It’s important for every parent to know this fact,’ says Sarah. ‘It only takes 5cm of water and 20 seconds for a child to drown.’ Yep. Less than half a minute of time and less than a dog bowl’s volume of water. Pretty alarming, isn’t it?
So, how does drowning happen and what can we do about it?
Well, says Sarah, there are some important things we can do to make sure we know how to respond if a child’s drowning on our watch, like learning CPR (more on this later). But, the most effective approach to childhood drowning is prevention, and that means taking measures in your home and in your parenting to try and stop it happening in the first place. Here’s how to go about it:
Check your house for dangers
‘Look around your home,’ says Sarah. ‘What do you have that your child could drown in, inside or outside? Water features, dog bowls and pot plants that have filled up after rain are all possible hazards.’ Then, there’s the bathroom. ‘As a paediatric emergency nurse, I’ve seen plenty of children who have drowned in swimming pools, but I’ve also seen many who have drowned in baths,’ says Sarah. ‘Please, never ever leave your child alone in the bath.’ Take everything that you need into the bathroom with you at the beginning so you don’t need to duck out for anything and make sure you take the plug out as soon as they get out, too, so they’re not tempted to get back in when the water’s draining.
The laundry is another area to evaluate, says Sarah. If you leave things soaking in buckets, make sure they have a secure lid or are up off the floor and out of reach. Then, think about outside areas. Do you have an inflatable pool or clam shell that you use for the dog to cool off in or the kids to splash about in on hot days? No problem, but empty it after use, EVERY time. Our next point is about safety in the backyard pool, but also consider safety around it, Sarah suggests. ‘Can your child push up furniture or pot plants to get over the pool fence? Does it meet the requirements of your local council and Australian standards?’ Fix any faulty latches on gates and make sure all fencing is in good condition and not weathered or damaged. Your conscience will thank you!
Supervise your kids in the pool
Here’s another sobering fact from Sarah Hunstead: Over 70% of child drownings in Australia can be attributed to lack of parental supervision. This is echoed by the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia, who say in their 2020 report that ‘lapses in supervision continue to be a contributory factor in child downing.’ The Society conducted a study to analyse the causes of distraction that led to lapses in parental supervision in cases of fatal drowning among children aged 0-4 years in Australia. They found that swimming pools were the leading location for drowning, commonly private residential pools (87% of the cases in their study). Three-quarters of drowning deaths occurred in toddlers aged 1-2 years (67%). The study found that the most common reasons parents were distracted from their supervision of children were:
- Indoor household duties or tasks, such as putting on washing or going to the toilet
- Outdoor household duties, such as hanging the washing out or gardening
- Talking or socialising with other people, inside or outside the house
- Electronic distractions, such as using a phone or computer
- Childcare, for additional children.
So what’s the main takeaway from all this? Don’t take your eyes off them for a moment. Factor supervision into your plans and take the kids with you if you need to go inside. This is important even if you know your kids can swim, says Sarah, who says she’s a relaxed parent generally, but never about water safety.
“My kids eat dirt, climb trees and play sports. They take risks. But, the one thing I’m always very conscious of is making sure that I never take my eyes off my children around water, even if they can swim. Even children who are competent swimmers can drown.”
SARAH HUNSTEAD, EMERGENCY PAEDIATRIC NURSE
Another circumstance that can sometimes lead to children drowning in backyard pools is when there are multiple adults but no designated supervisors, says Sarah. ‘A lot of things I’ve seen in my career are not drownings that occur because a child has just wandered out to the pool when nobody’s around. Instead, they’re barbecues or pool parties where there are loads of people there and everybody thinks someone else is watching the kids. They think a child couldn’t drown if there are twenty adults present, but it does happen.’
Adult supervision is also critical because drowning can be faster and quieter than we expect, says Sarah. ‘One thing we know is that drowning is silent. It’s not all the splashing and carrying on that you see in the movies.’ The emphasis should be on active supervision, suggests the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia, which means giving your children all of your attention all of the time when they’re in or around water. Sarah Hunstead suggests tag-teaming with other parents to be ‘on duty’ in this role. Whoever the designated supervisor is, they must be within arms’ reach and ready to enter the water immediately.
What else can we do to keep our kids safe around water this summer?
Well, swimming and water safety education continue to be vital, says the Society, although not everyone can access this. But, if you can, you should. Learning CPR to resuscitate a child in an emergency could be a literal life-saver, too, points out Sarah Hunstead. If you haven’t already, you can check out her instructional videos below and enrol in a training course to feel more confident about your skills. In the meantime, we hope you have a happy, fun and safe summer swimming season.