How To Be Safer in the Water: 10 Tips To Prevent Drowning

These simple steps can help minimize the risk of drowning and injuries while you’re spending time by the water.

Summer means more time spent outside as families flock to the pool, beach, or lake to cool off and have fun. But before heading out for a swim, it’s important to know the risks: After decades of decline, drowning rates in the U.S. are rising since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 4 and one of the three leading causes of accidental injury death among persons aged 5–34 years. In addition, deep racial disparities in drowning rates persist among all ages, with the highest among American Indian/Alaskan Native and Black persons.

The good news: “If everyone follows water safety guidance, injuries are entirely preventable,” says Dr. Mindy Stimell-Rauch, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “Parents and caregivers need to be vigilant and put the health and safety of children first.”

Below, Dr. Stimell-Rauch shares with Health Matters 10 simple ways to keep your friends and family safe so they can enjoy a healthy and fun summer season by the water.

1. Teach Your Kids To Swim

Swimming is fun, but more importantly, it’s a lifesaving skill. It’s essential that children be comfortable swimming or, at the very least, treading water. But with young children and toddlers, it’s still important to supervise them when they’re in the water; don’t assume they are safe alone even if they can swim.

2. Keep Watch Over Little Swimmers At All Times

At least one adult should have eyes on the water 100% of the time. If you have to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, designate another adult to be in charge of the swimmers, or have the child come out and stay somewhere safe — with no access to the water — until you can pay attention again. Particularly at a pool, walk around periodically so you can change your view, because the water refracts light and may prevent you from seeing pool corners and edges. Also, when shopping for swimsuits, choose bright colors like neon orange, green, pick and red to make it easier to spot your child in the water.

3. Know the Risks of Open Water

In open water, the undertow can be dangerous. Whenever there’s an option, choose a beach that has a lifeguard on duty. If you bring your child to a beach without a lifeguard, have a second adult on hand to help in case of an emergency. Look out for colored flags at the beach and know the hazard levels that the colors signify.

  • Yellow: Medium Hazard with moderate currents
  • Red: High Hazard with rough conditions
  • Two Red Flags: Water closed to public
  • Purple: Dangerous marine life present

4. Don’t Rely Solely on Floaties and Puddle Jumper Life Jackets

Arm floaties can provide a false sense of security — both for young swimmers, who may think they have stronger swimming abilities than they do, and for adults who think they will keep the child afloat. Since the swim gear can be unreliable — it can pop or come off a child — it should not be considered a substitute for supervision or swim lessons. A safer option is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, which has multiple fasteners for a secure fit.

5. Be on Guard for Silence as Well as Flailing

Children should be loud by the pool when they’re having fun; if you can’t hear them, check on them right away. Remember that when people encounter trouble in the water, they may not be able scream for help. Look out for arms and flailing as signs of distress.

6. Take Breaks

Kids shouldn’t be in the pool or ocean for hours at a time. A good rule of thumb is no more than 30 minutes in the water for toddlers and about an hour for older kids, so they can rest, get some shade, and drink some water with electrolytes. Sometimes kids, especially little ones, gulp down too much pool water, which can be a health risk. Pool water does not contain electrolytes like salt, potassium, and calcium, so on hot summer days kids who spend hours in the pool can end up with abnormal electrolyte levels.

When your child comes out of the water, it’s also a good time to reapply sunscreen to avoid sunburns. There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen, and even those labeled water-resistant will wash off.

7. Install a Secure Fence Around Pools.

If you have a pool in your backyard, installing a fence around the pool is critical so that kids can’t wander in and out of the pool area too easily. Your fence should be at least 4 feet high, have a lock, and be childproof. But a fence may not be entirely effective at keeping teens safe, so consider installing cameras by the pool. Not only will this help you keep an eye on them, but also, if your teens know you are watching, it may encourage them to abide by water safety rules.

Electric pool covers are useful, but because they require power they can be unreliable.

8. Dive With Caution

Know the depth of the water before your kid dives in; they should be diving into water that is at least 9 feet deep. And be aware that they can bump their head on the diving board when they jump.

9. Be Careful Around Pool Drains

If a pool drain is not installed correctly, the suction can be so powerful that it holds a child at the bottom. Kids can also get their hair or jewelry stuck, so it’s best to tie their hair back and take off jewelry before swimming.

10. If You Hear Thunder, Get Out of the Water.

It may seem obvious, but at the first sound of thunder, lightning will follow. Water conducts electricity, so lightning is more likely to strike water than land. If there’s a thunderstorm, get indoors and hold off on swimming again until at least a half-hour after the storm passes.

Additional Resources

  • Virtual urgent care is a video appointment with a board-certified NewYork-Presbyterian doctor that takes place through your phone, tablet, or computer. A Virtual Urgent Care visit is useful when you have a non-life-threatening medical concern that needs urgent attention.


  • Download the NYP Connect app via your smartphone’s app store or on your desktop to schedule an appointment and speak with a doctor virtually at your convenience.

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