As children get older, the patterns change, but drowning remains a major risk. And the most important messages for older children involve swimming lessons with water safety competence as an essential life skill to be taught to all children; there are notable disparities in access to swimming lessons, and drowning rates are higher in minority populations. Adult supervision and never swimming alone are still essential, as well as Coast-Guard-approved life jackets, even for strong swimmers. Anyone involved in activities on water where there is a current (tubing on a river, for example) should be wearing one of those life vests.
“So few people are aware that drowning is a big-kid problem too,” said Ms. Gage, who is a member of Families United to Prevent Drowning, which makes many family stories available. “When an older person drowns, it’s typically in open water, and typically there’s a lot of victim blaming.” People look for an explanation that involves reckless behavior, she said, or intoxication. In fact, she said, parents need to understand the importance of continuing to model safe behavior as their children get older. “Wear life vests, just as you don’t get into a car without a seatbelt,” she said. “Just because your child knows how to swim does not mean your child is drown-proof.”
The risk of drowning increases greatly among teenagers, especially boys, and remains elevated into adulthood, and may be tied to risk-taking behaviors. Ms. Gage said that the only laws that regulate life vests are connected to boating — so people tend to assume that there’s no need for life vests in other open water activities. And older children have also been affected by the circumstances of the Covid year, she said, with boat sales having increased and, again, with parents profoundly stressed and sometimes less able to supervise.
Ms. Hughes said that many parents who have been willing to take extreme precautions all year to avoid any chance of their children being exposed to Covid might not realize that statistically, drowning kills more young children — in 2019, 864 children 18 and under in the United States died by drowning, compared to about 300 pediatric deaths from Covid over the course of the pandemic.
Ms. Hughes said she worries that parents encourage children to believe that water is fun. And she said it is not enough to simply warn them about the risks. Since I spoke with her two years ago, she has become a strong believer in the value of swimming lessons for young children.
Some “swim classes” for kids may in fact rely on flotation devices, or on having children swim from one adult to another — which won’t necessarily help if no adult is there, Ms. Hughes said. And those lessons may convey only the message that water is fun, she said, without the attendant warning that it can also be deadly. In an email, she wrote, “When parents are trying to find a swim provider, especially for the age group most at risk (1 to 4), the most important question they should ask the swim instructor is: ‘Will these lessons teach my child how to get to the surface and get oxygen independently?’”
I also checked back with Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, who is the medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Oregon, and who was one of the authors of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on drowning prevention, asking, among other things, whether there was new research available on successful strategies for keeping children safe. He is looking forward to results from a study in Florida that will look at the effectiveness of classes for children from 3 to 7 years old that specifically teach water survival skills beyond standard swimming lessons, but this research is just getting underway.