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Water safety tips to protect your child

It can happen in a heartbeat. No splash. No sound. No warning.

It only takes an instant for someone to turn away; to be distracted. And in that instant your child can become one of the hundreds of people who drown in Australia each year.

Sadly, 291 people drowned in 2017, an increase of 10 deaths or 4% on the 10-year average of 281 drowning deaths. A horrific statistic and a tragedy for the families involved. 

"It doesn't take much. You can turn away for 20 seconds; go to answer the door or the phone while your child is in the bath. Or take your eyes off them while you're singing happy birthday at a party by the pool. It can happen that easily," says Shane Daw of Surf Lifesaving Australia (SLSA).

As the National Coastal Risk and Safety manager for SLSA, Shane sees how quickly, simply and quietly a drowning fatality can happen.

He says while it is important for parents and carers to know CPR and there are benefits to children learning to swim and being familiar with water and safety, there is really only one single measure parents can take to protect their children from drowning: supervision.

"There is no exception to this rule," he says.

"Regardless of age or experience, children need to be watched and supervised. Drowning is a quiet event. It's not splashing and screaming like you might see on the movies. That's why it is so important that children be watched all the time.

"It happens very quickly and very quietly and without anyone noticing until it is too late."

He says while swimming lessons are valuable in teaching children about water and not to fear it, it is still important to instil a healthy respect for water and know the dangers.

"The last thing you want is for a child to become too confident and the parents complacent about their child's ability in the water.

"Swimming lessons are great, but there is still nothing that can come close to supervision and watching your kids while they are in or near the water."

Drowning is a quiet event. It's not splashing and screaming like you might see on the movies. That's why it is so important that children be watched all the time.
Shane Daw

Shane says while there is no substitute for watching your kids in the pool, there are some measures parents can take to minimise the risk of a child coming across water and potential drowning opportunities around the home.

And they are not all just about pools.

Shane cites shallow ponds, water play areas and paddling pools as well as bathtubs and even buckets and washing machines as potential risks to very young children.

"We have had children – babies – die by drowning in nappy buckets and even pets' water bowls can be a risk.

"There have also been cases where a child will climb up onto a stool or something else and look into the washing machine, and because of their balance and limited movement – and the fact their heads are quite big compared to their bodies – they can topple into the tub or washing machine.

Preventative measures around the home include:

  • Ensuring pools are legally and safety fenced
  • Emptying containers around the home which can hold water
  • Watching children around pet bowls and keeping them out of the child's way
  • Keeping children away from garden ponds or other water features
  • Emptying nappy buckets or other buckets
  • Supervising bath time and ensuring the bath is empty when not in use
  • Using latches to keep toilet seats and lids closed
  • Being mindful of chairs, stools and other potential climbing items and keeping them away from sinks, washing machines and other higher water-holding fixtures

Shane says adults need to be mindful of water safety as well.

Drowning can happen at any age and it is important you are aware and respectful of your limitations and understand the area you are swimming.

"You might be a great swimmer in a pool but that doesn't mean you will be safe in the ocean or in a river.

"Each have many different conditions and very real risks."

Australia, he says, has a great culture of enjoying the water, but we need to be mindful of the risks and take care; lead by example.

He says explaining the risks, even to older children is important.

"We all go through a time where we think our parents don't know anything. And where you have, for instance, a teenage boy who is fuelled by hormones and adrenaline, you need to communicate clearly what the risk is, and make them understand what the dangers are. That way they can make their decision and own that knowledge."

Similarly, Shane says water safety applies when out and about on the water – not just in it.

There is something very Australian about skiing or taking an inflatable tube out on the dam, going fishing in the boat or paddling, jet skiing or kayaking along the coast.

"These are all a lot of fun, but don't take your eyes off the kids. Supervise them at all times and make sure you have correct fitting life jackets; especially in a river or dam because you won't float as well as you might in the salt water of the ocean."

Shane says it isn't about being the fun police. Far from it.

"It's simply a case of being safe and going home happy."

Water safety tips:

  • Supervise children at all times, no exceptions
  • Learn CPR and other general first aid
  • Understand that drowning is silent and quick
  • Ensure you understand the risks of the area where you are swimming
  • Never swim alone – always have someone close by who can raise the alarm and knows what to do – many drowning deaths result from someone trying to help and ending up in danger themselves
  • Expose children to water play and swimming lessons but watch out for over-confidence and complacency
  • Listen to the experts – swim between the flags and in patrolled areas
  • If playing on the water, ensure your children have correct-fitting life jackets

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