07/19/2010 12:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pool and Water Safety: A Healthy Respect for the Danger

We spent an enjoyable Fourth of July in a friend's backyard with about 40 adults and children. While the majority of adults were talking to each other, drinking and eating, the children, comprised of a mixture of toddlers to young teenagers, were frolicking in the pool. As I watched the older boys play games that involved splashing and jumping into the pool, I realized that this was not a particularly safe environment for the younger kids. Fortunately, at all times there were several parents in the pool watching out for the children. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about water safety.

Drowning is among the leading causes of accidental death among children and adolescents under 20, and the third leading cause of death among infants less than a year old. It kills more than 1,400 children under 14 in a typical year, and permanently injures many more. Eighty percent of home drownings involve children four and under. And boys drown over three times as often as girls, possibly because they take more risks.

These are harrowing statistics that can, and should, change the way we see a swimming pool (or any body of water for that matter). It doesn't mean we shouldn't encourage our children to reap the benefits of being outdoors in the water and doing lots of healthy aerobic exercise. However, it does mean it's crucial to be educated and very, very vigilant about employing proper adult supervision and safety precautions around children engaged in any kind of recreational water activity.

Dangers Close to Home
The most common place for a child to drown is in a home swimming pool. It can happen in minutes, even with adults present. Each year, 70% of drowning incidents among preschoolers occur when one or both parents are present. Effective prevention is through proper supervision by an adult - not an older child - who knows how to swim and can perform CPR. A telephone, life preserver and long-handled rescue hook should be at hand at all times.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics safety guidelines, the best way to prevent drowning is through the "touch supervision" technique, which means being within an arm's length of the child at all times, able to reach them and pull them from the water immediately.

These guidelines are not just for pool swimming. Different water conditions present different kinds of hazards, and making incorrect assumptions can be as dangerous as providing inadequate watch. Just because a child knows how to swim in a pool doesn't mean he or she is competent to handle currents, undertows, riptides or low visibility from swimming in a river, lake, stream or ocean. And even though a child may know how to swim, he or she still requires adult supervision. Remember also that inflatable aids such as water wings and tubes are not substitutes for adult supervision.

Pool Safety Tips

Simple steps, such as taking all the toys out of the pool after everyone's finished swimming, so kids aren't tempted to go back in to play with them, can prevent accidents. Also, secure the pool area so no one can get back in. If you're using a wading pool, empty it immediately after use, then store it upside-down and out of reach.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends installing a four-sided, self-closing and self-locking fence that isolates the pool from the house and yard. The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers detailed directions for building one at Door alarms, pool alarms and automatic pool covers are also helpful. And be vigilant about proper drain coverage at home as well as at public pools. Parts of the body getting trapped by the suctioning motion of drains or hair becoming entangled is especially hazardous for young children. It is best to install an antientrapment drain cover.

But even with these safety precautions, never leave a child unattended in any kind of water. And if you're having a pool party, don't depend on the parents of your guests for supervision. Although nearly all parents state that they actively supervise their children, a survey carried out by the National Safe Kids Campaign found that parents are often distracted by talking to others (38%), reading (18%), eating (17%) and using the phone (11%). So, to be really safe, either have a "designated supervisor" or hire a professional lifeguard.

If you think all these safety measures are a little over the top, I'll give you one more statistic: 54 per cent of drownings were attributed to an adult losing contact with the child, generally for less than five minutes.