The Rules of Water Safety for School-Age Children

“By the time children reach school age (about age 6), they should be capable swimmers,” says Sarah Lazarus, DO, pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She offers this rule of thumb: Once a child can swim 50 meters or more without stopping, it’s reasonable for a parent to keep the child within eye’s reach in the water. Kids who aren’t strong swimmers should stay within arm’s reach of a parent when visiting a pool, lake or ocean. And they should take swim lessons.

“There’s really no reason that any child, even those with developmental disabilities, can’t learn to swim,” says Dr. Lazarus. She notes that kids with autism and epilepsy are at a higher risk of drowning, so it’s even more important for them to take swim lessons. If that’s not possible, parents should take extra precautions and keep those kids in a U.S. Coast Guard–approved lifejacket; for them, staying within eye’s reach isn’t enough. “They should be within arm’s reach no matter what,” says Dr. Lazarus.

Other lifesaving tips

Here's how to keep children ages 6 through 12 safe around water.

In a boat or other watercraft:

  • U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jackets should be worn by everyone at all times.
  • Life jackets should fit comfortably.
  • Never use alcohol or other substances when boating. Intoxication is a major factor in many boating accidents.

Swimming in a pool, lake or pond:

  • Teach your children to always enter the water feet-first. This can reduce the risk of a head or spinal injury. Never dive into a lake or pond.
  • Children should never swim alone, even if they’re good swimmers.
  • Parents and caregivers should remove all potential distractions, especially cell phones. Keep your phone nearby for emergencies only.
  • Until your child can confidently swim 50 meters, Dr. Lazarus generally recommends no more than one child per adult in or near the water. If multiple young kids are in the pool, designate other adults or responsible teens as “water watchers.”
  • A lifeguard’s responsibilities include enforcing rules, scanning the swimming area, and rescuing and resuscitating swimmers when needed. They are not supervisors of your child. Assume no one is watching your child but you.
  • Even if your school-age child is a good swimmer, do not make him responsible for younger siblings around water.
  • Set a “checkpoint” and check-in times for meeting in case you get separated at the beach.

Know the signs of drowning

Many water emergencies happen quickly and silently—in the time it takes to answer a text or go grab a towel. According to the American Red Cross, an active drowning victim may be vertical in the water but unable to move forward or tread water. A passive drowning victim is motionless and floating face-down on the bottom or near the surface of the water. While it’s important to know the signs, keep in mind that not all instances of drowning look the same.

What Is non-fatal drowning?

According to Dr. Lazarus, non-fatal drowning (formerly known as near drowning) is any kind of submersion that causes a child to choke, gasp or vomit. The child may need oxygen, rescue breaths or CPR—and there can be brain damage or respiratory issues. “This type of injury is so significant that even if it’s not fatal, it’s still considered a drowning,” she says. Children who experience non-fatal drowning need medical help as soon as possible.

Seconds count in preventing death or disability from drowning. Don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1. And consider enrolling in CPR so you’re equipped with the skills that can save a life.

Swim Lessons for Adults

Remember, no one can protect your child like you can. It’s never too late for parents to learn how to swim. Schedule swim lessons today.

Would You Know What to Do?” American Red Cross.