Tips for Swimming Safe With a Toddler

toddler swimming
John Lund/Tiffany Schoepp

With sunshine and heat comes the promise of endless days spent playing in the pool, at the lake, and in splash pads. For toddlers who aren’t able to swim on their own yet, this favorite summer and vacation pastime can be dangerous for little ones and anxiety-producing for parents and other caregivers. 

In general, the number of kids with unintentional injuries increases during the warmer months and an estimated 5,000 children are hospitalized due to unintentional drowning-related incidents each year.

Because of this, it is incredibly important that parents be aware of and practice pool and water safety—being vigilant will minimize the risk of accidents and maximize your family’s fun.

Tips for Swimming Safe

When in a pool, parents, other caregivers or the adult in charge has to stay alert at all times—no exceptions. Use these tips to prevent drownings:

Stay in the water with toddlers. As the caregiver, you should not leave toddlers or other young children alone in pools or other bodies of water ever—even if you're in a shallow baby pool. Drowning can happen in less than two inches of water.

Keep distractions at a minimum. Not only can drowning happen in shallow water. Did you know that drowning can happen in under two minutes? There’s no way around it—actively supervising toddlers who are near or in the water will mean you’re able to act fast if something does go wrong. That means, first and foremost, putting the cell phone away while you’re at the pool or the lake, so you aren’t tempted to read emails, scroll through social media, or send text messages.

Safety fencing is a must for home pools. For children under the age of four, most drownings occur in home swimming pools. If the child in your care lives in a home with a pool, make sure he/she cannot access the pool without an adult. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a four-sided isolation fence that separates the pool from the house as well as the rest of the yard.

Take swim classes. Learning how to swim can help reduce the risk of drowning, especially for younger children. Swim classes start as early as six months and are often available at YMCAs and other indoor pool facilities year-round. While most swim classes will include the parent and the child until about the age of three, these classes can help you take huge steps toward your child being comfortable and confident in the water and ready to swim solo when the time comes. Consider making the investment in lessons.

Invest in toddler life jackets. Many parents pick up a set of water wings for toddlers or other floating toys, like noodles or rafts. These do not prevent drowning. For added safety and if you have a toddler in an open body of water, toddlers can use personal floatation devices, aka life jackets. Remember, just because your toddler is wearing a life jacket does not mean you don’t need to pay attention to what’s going on.

Don’t ignore pool rules. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a public pool or in a backyard, general pool safety rules—like no running, no dunking or other roughhousing, and no diving in shallow water—are rules for a reason.

While your toddler likely won’t be participating in any roughhousing or performing swan dives, older kids might, which may scare young children or put them in harm's way. Tell a lifeguard if you see older kids acting in ways that could be unsafe to themselves and other children at the pool.

Learn life-saving skills. Parents and other caregivers should be certified in CPR. Administering CPR can save lives if drowning does occur. Check your local Red Cross or YMCA for certification courses and download the Red Cross First Aid App to refresh your skills on a regular basis.

Would you recognize the signs of dry drowning or secondary drowning?

There is a difference between dry drowning and secondary drowning, both of which are extremely uncommon. Dry drowning and secondary drowning only account for one to two percent of all drowning cases, but if your children swallowed an excessive amount of pool or lake water or had an incident where they were struggling in the pool, it’s worth keeping an eye out for signs like trouble breathing, coughing, chest pain, and extreme exhaustion. Seek medical attention immediately if any of these signs are present. If your toddler has had a near drowning experience, don't wait, take them to the emergency room. 

What are recreational water illnesses? 

Chlorine kills germs in a pool, right? Not necessary. According to the CDC, recreational water illnesses have been climbing for the last 20 years. Recreational water illnesses spread when a child comes in contact with contaminated water in pools, lakes, hot tubs, water parks, and beaches. They can cause a variety of illness, diarrhea, and stomach issues—and with toddlers, those infections can be more serious.

In order to keep your child's risk of contracting a recreational water illness low, parents and caregivers should follow these guidelines:

Prevent your toddler from going to the bathroom in the pool. With a young child who may or may not be potty trained (or may be partially potty trained or recently potty trained), a properly fitting swim diaper is your best defense against your toddler going to the bathroom in the pool. Check the diaper regularly and make sure it is clean. Change it immediately and away from the water if your child has gone to the bathroom in it.

For potty-trained toddlers and young children, take regular bathroom breaks. Even if a child is solidly potty trained, accidents are not uncommon with children who don't want to stop playing to use the bathroom. Set a timer if you think you'll forget and ask your child every half hour or so if they need to go. 

Do not take a toddler or young child with diarrhea to swim. Even with a swim diaper, this is not safe as the diaper can leak. 

Prevent young children from swallowing pool water. Toddlers don't understand how to hold their breath underwater, and therefore are more prone to swallowing water, which is one of the main ways recreational water illnesses are spread. In addition, your little one might think that drinking pool or lake water is hilarious. Do you best to stop your toddler from doing this and help them understand that this water is "icky" and not the same as what's in his or her sippy cup.

Buy pool test strips and use them to check the chlorine and pH levels of the pool. According to the CDC, a proper free chlorine level of 1-3mg/L or parts per million [ppm] and pH of 7.2–7.8 maximizes germ-killing. Pool test strips can be bought online or at most big box and hardware stores, particularly during the warmer months.

How to prevent sunburns, dehydration and heat-related illnesses in your toddler 

Fun in the sun can quickly and easily lead to other uncomfortable and even dangerous conditions like sunburns, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration. With toddlers, you cannot count on your little one being able to describe discomfort or pain, so parents need to take steps to ensure toddlers and young children avoid these heat and high humidity-related conditions.

Recognizing the signs of heat-related illness. The signs of heat exhaustion can include an increase in thirst, weakness, fainting or dizziness, cramping, nausea, headache, increased sweating, clammy skin, or a rise in body temperature. These may not be as obvious in a toddler, but heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke, which is far more serious.

If your toddler begins to show signs of heat exhaustion, it's time to get out of the sun. Immediately take him or her into an air-conditioned space, remove excess clothing, and hydrate. If the child’s symptoms include a severe headache, loss of consciousness, confusion, rapid breathing, a temperature over 105ºF, or hot, flushed, dry skin, seek medical care.

Make sure sunscreen is applied and reapplied regularly. For toddlers, choose a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and is water-resistant, fragrance-free and hypoallergenic with an SPF of 15-30. You can go higher, but experts believe that anything over 30 doesn’t typically provide much additional protection. Sunscreen should be applied before you leave for the pool or other outdoor activities, and it should be generously reapplied every 30 minutes. Remember, a toddler's skin is much more sensitive than yours, so do your research on the best sunscreens available for your little one. 

Keep your toddler hydrated. Bring a cooler with plenty of water along with a sippy cup or kid-sized water bottle for your toddler. Keep an eye on how much water your toddler drinks and remind them to hydrate every 20 minutes or so. Drinking plenty of water helps to keep the body’s natural cooling system working. 

Have your toddler wear hats, sunglasses, and coverups. Recently, clothing that offers toddlers extra UV protection has become more available online and at big box stores. Swim shirts, which are also called rash guards, provide more protection from the sun than traditional bathing suits because of the longer sleeves. These are perfect for toddlers. Also, invest in wide-brimmed, UV-protecting hats (it's good to have a few on hand, as toddler hats have a tendency to go missing), as well as a cover up for when your toddler is out of the water. 

Don't swim at noon. It's common knowledge and good advice to avoid the pool mid-day when the sun is typically strongest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you swim early or swim late, you'll avoid the hours that sunburns and other heat-related conditions are most likely happen. 

Whether you're spending your time at the beach or just looking forward to getting outside, it's your job as a parent or caregiver to keep your toddler safe at the pool and when having fun near other bodies of water. Being vigilant will go a long way toward preventing everything from common warm weather ailments to serious injuries and potentially life-threatening accidents.

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