May 28th, 2009
12:02 PM ET

How can I keep my toddler safe in the pool?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Thespena in Crown Point, Indiana:

“My son is 3 this year and has outgrown the kiddie pool but I'm nervous about letting him swim in deeper water. I've heard toddlers can drown in water only a few inches deep. Is that true?”


Hi Thespena,

Thanks for asking this question. As a parent of three small children, I completely understand and share your apprehension. You want to do everything you can to keep your son safe, but at the same time to give him as many beautiful life experiences as possible, swimming being a great one (especially as we’re heading into summer).

You're correct about the drowning hazards for toddlers. In fact, just one inch of water is enough for a toddler to drown in, according to Safe Kids USA Part of the reason is because their little bodies are top-heavy, so they have a harder time maintaining their balance and getting back up when they fall. Every year, more than 800 kids in the United States under age 14 die as a result of unintentional drowning. For your 3-year-old, his risk rate is double that of any other age group; children 4 and under actually have the single highest drowning death rate according to the National Safety Council.

But that doesn’t mean you have to keep your child out of the pool altogether. The number one thing you can do is to keep a close watch on what’s happening when your child is in the pool. Try to stay no more than an arms-length away. Unlike the way we see drownings depicted in the movies, there’s usually no prolonged flailing of arms and crying out – sadly, it’s usually very quick and quiet, so you can’t just rely on being in earshot. You have to keep your eyes on your son at all times.

Also, don’t rely on floats or any other swimming aid to keep your child safe because those are not meant to replace your own supervision and can give parents a false sense of security. When you feel he’s ready, you should start taking your son to swimming lessons. It’s a great source of exercise and fun for kids, and the sooner he becomes comfortable and skilled in the water, the safer he’ll be as he grows older.

There are some other things that you yourself can do now to protect against the worst from happening. One of them is to learn CPR. You’ll feel more secure - and who knows when you might need those skills in some other part of your life?

Another thing to consider if you have a pool at home is to secure the pool itself. A 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics found that home swimming pools are the most common site for drownings. So, be sure to have a fence around the pool. That alone has been shown to reduce the incidence of pool drownings anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the time. The fence should surround the pool on all four sides, instead of relying on the house to be one of the sides. You can also install a door alarm to notify you if your child walks out the back door, a pool alarm that detects any movement in the water, or even a self-locking mechanism on the gate so that your child can’t get into the pool area without you being there.

One more thing while we’re on the topic of pool safety. It’s actually something that many parents are really unaware of since it’s a newer development. A recent federal law has been enacted to require all public pools to switch over to a safe drain mechanism. You should have your home pool inspected too. The reason: some drains have a super-strong suction mechanism that can easily entrap a child or adult at the bottom of the pool, causing them to drown. Once you get stuck to the drain, it’s almost impossible to wrest a person away from that powerful force. A replacement drain – one that allows air to flow in between your hand and the bottom of the drain, so it doesn’t create that suction effect - will run you as little as $35 plus the cost of installation. It’s a small price to pay for the security you get.

Filed under: Children's Health • Expert Q&A • Parenting

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.