It came to my attention after my previous PSA that I’ve never told, here on the blog, the full story of the time my four-year-old nearly drowned. (She’s fine.) I write about this because it’s water season (in the northern hemisphere, anyhow), and for US children ages 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death. Of all the things you worry about in your little kids, this one is, statistically speaking, one that *needs to be worried about*. I’m going to tell our story, and then you will know what you need to do in order to keep your young children safe while they are at the pool.
Spoiler: You, personally, watch them every single second.
As you’ll see, that is not me being dramatic and overbearing. That is just *how it is* with young children at the pool. Here’s the story.
Quiet Pool, Lifeguard on Duty
I had four kids in back-to-back swimming lessons at the local YMCA, and so while the youngest had her lesson the older kids would play in the pool, and then they’d switch. We were at an indoor pool and I wasn’t myself swimming. I was dressed business-casual (this gets relevant later) — my good real-leather loafers, slacks, tailored t-shirt, probably even make-up and jewelry. The pool was about four feet deep at the shallow end, and my kids aren’t that short. The four-year-old was just inches shy of being able to hold her head above water — so she didn’t play there.
Where she played was on the broad, shallow concrete steps leading down into the pool, about an 8′ x 10′ area with handrails on both sides and the middle. I had her play on the first three steps, which were shallow enough for her to sit or kneel on, but she could stand with her head fully out of water on the fourth step. The way the pool was constructed, if you stepped off that last step, at all times you were in immediate reach of either the last step, a bar, the wall of the pool, or all three. She knew how to paddle to the wall from water over her head, and how to hold onto the wall to stay above water.
Still, she was in the habit of playing only on the shallowest area of those broad, flat steps with the non-slip surface.
That day, though, she asked me if she could play down on the bottom step. “Are you sure?” I asked. She was sure. “Okay. Be careful.”
And down she went to play in slightly-deeper water.
Drowning is Silent
During this time, I was seated nearby on an Adirondack chair watching her. Not reading. Not checking my phone. Not chatting with other parents. Just watching the kid. Still, you glance around. There are the other kids having their lessons (yes, I kept an eye on them, too), there might be people setting up for water aerobics, maybe a lifeguard on break passing by. It was a quiet weekday morning off-season, and my attention was directed towards watching the four-year-old, but of course you sometimes aren’t focusing 100%.
What happened to my daughter is that she slipped off that last step.
I became aware that she was bobbing up and down in the 4′-foot area just slightly too deep for her. She looked like a kid practicing a bobbing-excercise, except she wasn’t. As her face would almost surface, she was not getting air, and she was very clearly not doing this for fun. But to someone who didn’t know her, you might have thought she was just splashing around, and splashing very quietly at that. You did not hear a word of struggle.
Pro Technique: Pull Kid Out of Water
Fortunately, a pool is a relatively easy place to see someone drowning, and it’s a relatively easy place to effect a rescue. –> If you’re at a pond, lake, river, or ocean, in all but the shallowest water you really do need life jackets, because it is much, much more difficult (often impossible) to find a drowning body, and it’s much more difficult to pull someone out, in open water.
The pool, though, is pretty straightforward: I stood up, marched down the steps, and picked up my child in my arms.
I carried her up to the deck of the pool and listened to her breath a bit more.
If you see your child starting to drown and can go grab your child immediately? You’re in great shape.
That only works if you are personally watching your child the entire time.
Does it need to be you? What about the lifeguard?
I’ll tell you about the lifeguard.
The Lifeguard Has a Whole Pool to Watch
I stood there on the deck, dripping wet, leather loafers soaked, business-casual clothing soaked, holding my kid and deciding what to do next. Something you should know is that your child can seem fine but still be at risk due to water in the lungs. So when the lifeguard on duty hopped down from his chair to come speak to me as I stood there having just rescued my kid, he looking visibly unsettled as he approached, I assumed it was to tell me he was going to have someone to listen to lung sounds.
Instead what he said was, “Um. I’m sorry, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to wear street clothes in the pool.”
I was speechless.
He had not seen anything of what had just happened.
I had literally identified a drowning swimmer and rescued her, and the lifeguard had not seen it. He had no idea that someone had nearly drowned in his pool, on his watch.
How could that happen?!
Remember that drowning is silent. My rescue was silent, too. I didn’t spend time shouting or flagging down help, I went and grabbed the kid. Maybe the lifeguard really was a horrible lifeguard. More likely: You can only focus on one place at a time. As he scanned the pool, he happened to miss what was happening in one corner while he was looking elsewhere.
If you want to make sure your kid gets rescued in time, you have to be watching.
Parenting Young Kids is Hard
I will tell you right now that having four young children back-to-back did not make it easy to take the kids to the pool. SuperHusband’s not really a pool guy (he’s a river guy, hence the name of this blog), and so we weren’t one of these families where both parents go hang out at the pool all summer long. Watching four children in the pool by yourself is mentally exhausting, because if you don’t want to miss one going down, you literally have to count heads one-two-three-four, focusing from kid to kid in a non-stop cycle the entire time your children are at the pool.
–> Not just while they are in the water, but any time they are near the pool.
I didn’t love this. I do not miss the years of being so, so tired of counting heads while other people were relaxing and having fun at the pool. But if I weren’t absolutely obsessive about this, I could easily have had a drowned kid. Instead I had a child who was very scared, but who got a clean bill of health from the pediatrician when we stopped in for a lung-check immediately after.
There is No Such Thing as 100% Failsafe Parenting
From the time your child is conceived, your child is in danger of death. The death rate for human beings is 100%. No matter how safety-obsessed you are, eventually you have to let your child out into the world. As I write, my rescued four-year-old is now a teenager at the pool with her older sister, and they drove there together themselves. Bit by bit as a parent you have to let go. You have to let your children take risks. You cannot protect your child from every possible danger.
Still, you can improve your odds by putting your efforts into making risky activities as safe as possible, and being especially careful with the most-dangerous situations.
Cars are insanely dangerous, by the way. For US children ages 5-19, a motor vehicle accident is the most likely cause of accidental death. And yet: Your 1-4 year old child is more likely to die by accidental drowning than in a car accident.
Anyone can get into a freak accident. As parents we have a duty to do all we reasonably can to equip our kids with good skills and good decision-making support (including waiting on freedom-privileges if our child isn’t ready), and then one day we have to hold our breath and let our kids go out and do their thing. As parents we have to weigh costs and benefits, recognize our own limitations, and acknowledge that, at any moment, despite all our most diligent efforts, we could find ourselves in the horrifying situation of having just lost, out of the blue, a child more precious to us than anything else this world has to offer.
Let me emphasize here: You aren’t a bad parent if your child dies. You aren’t a terrible person if your child dies of something that might have been preventable, but for some reason or another you just didn’t know or weren’t able to prevent the thing. You cannot save your child from every possible danger. You cannot.
Life is hard.
Watch Your Child Near Water
But still: Your young child is not able to make good decisions about water safety. Your young child also lacks the emotional wherewithal to stay calm, cool, and collected in a terrifying situation.
When my daughter almost drowned? She was literally an inch from perfect safety. All she had to do was take *one* step. There is absolutely no reason she couldn’t have saved herself — except that she couldn’t. She was four-years-old, and scared, and forgot everything she knew.
Fortunately someone was watching her, and so in the end she was fine.