The Swim Professor

Jim Reiser, M.S.

What You Never Knew About Drowning Prevention

Your Complete Guide to Keeping Your Child Safer in and around the Water

A California Firefighter & EMT commented, “I respond to horrific accidents in my job every day, but there is nothing worse than responding to a drowning accident involving a child.” Sadly, there is no accident more common than drowning for children under the age of five. 14x more children die from drowning than from automobile accidents at this age. Quite devastating. The good news is drowning is preventable. How? I’m going to show you in this guide.

In order to prevent childhood drownings, we must be successful at three levels:

  1. Awareness
  2. Education
  3. Application


No group has more ability to improve awareness than the media. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television have the resources to get the education to millions of parents twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. I am convinced that the more the media covers this critical topic, the more children’s lives will be saved.


No group has more ability to educate parents on water safety than the swim professionals themselves. By utilizing water safety materials like the Swim for Life Foundation’s Safer 3 approach–a well-planned, layered approach can be communicated effectively to parents. Swimming professionals should take every opportunity to teach parents these critical safety practices.


Parents are ultimately responsible for the application. The Safer 3 presents Safer Kids, Safer Water, & Safer Response.

Safer Kids is about teaching children to swim and constant supervision. Hundreds of thousands of parents frantically rush to sign up for swimming lessons every summer. Yet thousands of children are still rushed to the hospital every year, and we lose an average of 800 children a year to drowning which is the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 5 and under. According to SafeKids Worldwide, drowning is second only to automobile accidents in deaths of children ages 6 to 14, which makes up 26% of accidental deaths, compared to 16% of accidental deaths for drowning. But relatively speaking, drowning is by far the more serious killer if you compare how often children are in and around the water vs. how often they are in the car.

So what’s the problem? If hundreds of thousands of kids are getting swimming lessons, why are so many children still drowning?

First of all, drowning prevention must be a layered approach. Safer Water emphasizes that pools are properly secured with proper fencing. Safer Response emphasizes that parents should learn CPR. There is no single solution for Drowning Prevention, it’s a layered solution.

In terms of Safer Kids, if thousands of children are taking swimming lessons, shouldn’t that alone reduce the drowning rate? My answer is yes and no, and here’s why:

  1. If all the children that signed up for swimming lessons were getting ongoing, professional instruction the drowning rate would significantly drop. However, this is not the case. Parents are sign children up “to take swimming lessons” like they sign up for summer camps. In other words, two weeks this summer, two weeks next summer, etc. What skill can you honestly master in two weeks?

    Learning to swim is no different than learning to read, play the piano, or to learn any worthwhile skill. In order to master any skill, you must continue instruction and continue to practice. Because swimming is an activity that we usually do in the summer, most parents only think about swimming instruction for a couple of weeks year. This is a SERIOUS problem in the U.S. and is a FATAL MISTAKE. Bottom line–parents aren’t keeping their children in swimming lessons long enough in order to master the skill.

  2. What is the Definition of Swimming? According to Webster’s dictionary, one definition is to play in the water! Another definition the dictionary gives is to propel oneself through the water, which is a little better than the first, but this definition is simply not good enough when it comes to drowning prevention. Another reason for the misconception of what real swimming is probably linked to the fact that 128 million Americans have water phobias, and 64% of adults are afraid of deep water! In general, the majority of adults don’t have strong swimming skills. With improved swim school programming, this may change over the years but not when kids aren’t staying enrolled in the instruction.

According to SAFE KIDS WORLDWIDE, we know the following:

  • Babies and toddlers under the age of 3 are drowning in bathtubs
  • Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are drowning in residential pools.
  • Children and adults ages 6 & over are drowning in OPEN WATER situations.

I think we should use these drowning statistics in our parent education to help parents better understand the measures that need to be taken to change them.

If more than half of the drownings of BABIES AND TODDLERS are in bathtubs, let’s learn from this statistic: STOP LEAVING CHILDREN UNATTENDED IN BATH TUBS! It’s that simple. If you have to answer the phone, get the door, whatever—take your child with you. Boys drown twice as often than girls in these situations too. Why? They like to play harder. They slip, fall, and hit their head. When anyone is unconscious face down in the water, they drown.

When a child learns to “swim like a fish” underwater most parents discontinue instruction for their child. While “swimming like a fish” is usually enough to get a child out of trouble in a pool and is a great start for a two or three year old, those skills are SELDOM ENOUGH for OPEN WATER situations likes lakes and rivers where conditions are more challenging. According to SAFEKIDS WORLDWIDE, more than half the drownings for ages 6 & over are occurring in open water situations. So the bottom line is we need to keep our children in swimming lessons UNTIL they master formal strokes, not just until they learn to “swim like a fish” underwater.

POOL/LAKE PARTY TIP: 90 Percent of drownings occur when the child was in the care of one or both parents. When you’re at your Memorial Day Lake or Pool party—you MUST have a designated “water watcher.” A technique designed by the Safer 3, a water watcher is someone who has no other responsibility other than watch the kids in and around the water. Drownings are so common at parties because parents start socializing and think the other person is watching the child. My wife and I wear a “Water Watcher Tag” so there is never a doubt about who is watching.

ADULTS: 700 adults drown last year due to drowning in boating accidents, most of which would have been prevented if a lifejacket were being worn. Of those 700 drownings, 9/10 were not wearing a lifejacket. You can be the best swimmer in the world, but if you’re unconscious, you will drown. You buckle up when you get in the car; wear a lifejacket in the boat! Boating and alcohol don’t mix either; alcohol is involved in nearly 50% of those accidents. When you drink, you’re actually NOT 10 feet tall and bullet proof.

A water safety DVD called SAFER KIDS and a water safety book called SAFER KIDS WATER SAFETY BOOK are available online for just $9.00 at All proceeds are donated to the Swim for Life Foundation and the SAFER 3 to go toward the fight against drowning prevention. A great investment for any parent, swim teacher, or swim school owner.

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June 1, 2008 at 3:20 pm Comments (3)