Pools, lakes, and beaches can be dangerous for anyone, but no one more so than a novice swimmer. According to the International Life Saving Federation, 1.2 million people die by drowning every year, and more than 50 percent of those victims are children. What's even scarier is that one-third of child drownings happen at home — even in the relative safety of your own backyard pool. There are many ways to promote water safety, but the only way to guarantee it is for parents to make smart decisions. POPSUGAR consulted with Carol Barnett, who is the swim head at Shibley Day Camp in Nassau County, to find out what parents need to know.
According to Barnett, what must be considered foremost when letting your child hit the water without intense supervision (say, at the local pool where there are only a few lifeguards on duty) is their individual swimming ability. Unlike with car seats, your child's ability to swim without your watchful eye is not contingent on size or age. She also emphasized that no one, regardless of age, should ever swim alone. "Anything can happen," Barnett said. "[Children] should always swim with a buddy. Also, they should be taught what to do if an emergency occurs." Just as in any stage of growing up, you aren't always going to be able to supervise your children, and it's necessary to be totally confident in their ability before you can trust them in the pool.
Parents often overestimate their child's swimming skills — nearly three out of four parents of children 6 to 18 years old report that their child can swim independently, and of those parents, 45 percent would allow their child to swim in a pool unsupervised. One in seven would even allow a child who can't swim independently to swim unsupervised. Even if all of your child's friends are trusted by their parents to swim unsupervised, that doesn't necessarily mean your child is ready. So many other factors need to be taken into consideration: Who else is in the pool? How many pool toys are in there? How many children? Are they all competent swimmers? Do you trust all of them?
No matter his or her age, you need to feel certain that your child is a confident and conscientious swimmer (and no, not with arm floaties, but totally unassisted) before allowing unsupervised swim. Consult your child's swim instructor to make sure all the requirements of swim proficiency have been met, such as demonstrating breathing, mastering the front crawl stroke, treading water, and swimming the distance of a pool without touching the sides. "When a child is deep water safe (meaning they've passed a test, or met requirements of a facility), I would allow them in the water and not have to be in there with them," Barnett said.
To be certain that your child has all the skills of a proficient swimmer, check with the American Red Cross Swimming and Water Safety Skills Chart to make sure he or she meets the requirements of Level 6. Barnett also recommends that if your child is swimming in a public facility without you there (or even if you are there!), a lifeguard should be present. Remember that even a skilled swimmer is at risk of drowning, but skillful and responsible swimming (as well as parental discretion) decrease that risk significantly.