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This article originally appeared in the June 9, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The last bell of the school year signals a three-month migration from the classroom to the water for many kids. Whether it’s a lake, river, home or public pool, it’s hard to beat a good swim when the temperatures soar.

Swimming is great exercise, but it can be dangerous for kids who aren’t careful in the water. Drowning remains the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and claims the lives of about 1,000 children each year.

But that doesn’t mean parents should steer their children away from the water. Instead, they should remain watchful and urge their children to follow basic water safety rules.

Parents should always supervise children in the water. Children can quickly get into trouble in the water, and that short window of time can result in a drowning or “near-drowning.” It is easy for adults to multi-task, but it is a mistake for parents distracted with multiple tasks to assume they could rescue a child in time to prevent harm, said Faye Doerhoff, MD, an emergency room physician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“If the child gets away and is submerged for even a few minutes, that is long enough to sustain serious decreased oxygen and serious brain injury,” Doerhoff said.

For children ages 1 to 4, the home swimming pool is the most frequent area for drowning to occur, according to the CDC. Safety codes in most communities require home swimming pools to be enclosed with a child-proof fence, but children can gain access to the pool from inside the home as well. This makes supervision crucial, with no lapses from parents to answer the phone or doorbell.

“An adult must be available and very close by because if children are in the backyard pool by themselves for only a few minutes – and that can pass in a flash – that is all the time needed for drowning,” Doerhoff said.

Child floatation devices – commonly called water wings or “floaties” – are not designed to prevent drowning.

“Unfortunately, people put way too much faith in the ability of ‘floaties’ to keep children above water,” Doerhoff said. “It’s not designed like a certified life jacket, which has the buoyancy in the front of the vest so if the child is not able to keep himself upright, it makes him float on his back so his face is out of the water.”

Missouri and Illinois have lovely lakes and streams that attract swimmers and floaters each summer, but children should be cautious in these natural bodies of water as well. They may contain hidden drop-offs or even undertows that can make swimming difficult. Children should always wear life jackets when exploring these areas. For older children, relying on the “buddy system” when out swimming is crucial.

Parents should also consider formal swimming lessons to help children be safer and more comfortable in the pool. “Dog paddling” is not the same as swimming and, in a situation such as a boating accident, children would not be able to maintain “dog paddling” for long. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swimming lessons for most children 4 years and older but says that even toddlers can benefit from swimming lessons, if they have expressed interest in the water.

Another lesson that can benefit families with swimmers is CPR. In the time it takes paramedics to arrive, CPR skills could make a difference in saving a child’s life. Classes are usually available from local American Red Cross chapters.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at


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