Water Babies

by Ann Douglas


Ready to hit the water with your little surfer boy or girl this summer? Here’s everything you need to know to get safely in the swim of things.


You can hardly blame Canadian parents for going a little swim-crazy this time of year. After all, for most of us, there are three months — if we’re lucky — of decent outdoor swimming weather.

Before you and your kids take the plunge, you’ll want the lowdown on how to stay safe and healthy. Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked — and most important — water safety questions.

What safety steps should pool owners take?

A typical backyard is used for more than just swimming, so when pool owners prepare to secure their pools, they should think seriously about four-sided fencing (as opposed to three-sided fencing that relies on the house to provide the fourth side of the fence). It’s a recommendation that’s been put forward by the Canadian Paediatric Society. Having a fence between the house and the pool helps prevent situations whereby a toddler could run out the back door and fall into the pool.

There are other ways to minimize the risk of accident or injury:

  • install a self-closing, self-latched gate;
  • ensure all municipal fencing requirements concerning height and type of pool fence have been met;
  • prepare an emergency action plan  so that you know how to react in the event that someone is found unconscious in the pool;
  • receive first aid and CPR training;
  • make sure there is life-saving equipment and a first-aid kit in the pool area, as well as a portable phone;
  • keep lawn furniture, toys, bikes, picnic tables and other items away from the fence and gate to make it more difficult for neighbourhood children to get into the backyard uninvited;
  • have “Pool Rules” clearly posted for the benefit of guests and as a reminder for your own kids;
  • keep all chemicals for treating the pool locked up.

Should babies and toddlers wear diapers when swimming in public pools and at public beaches?

Unless you want to be the most unpopular family at the pool — the one that forces a pool closure due to an untimely diaper leak — you’ll take care to ensure your little one is dressed for success. That means putting your child in a swim diaper (a diaper made of special material that doesn’t absorb as much as regular diapers, and fits a little more tightly).

You’ll also want to make a point of checking your child’s diaper regularly to be on the lookout for signs of stool. And if it’s time for a change, make sure you do the deed in the specified area, and that you wash your hands thoroughly before returning to the pool. Don’t count on the chlorine in the pool to do your dirty work for you, by the way. It can take hours — even days — for the chlorine to kill off certain types of germs.

What’s the best age to start swimming lessons?

A 1997 study reported in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport concluded the earliest age at which children are able to master basic swim skills and have the confidence to learn is four — one of the reasons why the Canadian Paediatric Society recommend that parents hold off on starting formal swimming lessons until kids are that age or older. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, children aren’t ready to start mastering swim strokes and learning the basics of water safety until age four. Classes aimed at younger children are designed to help children to feel comfortable in the water—an important first step for any swimmer. The Red Cross’s Aquaquest program starts at age 3 and continues to age 14. The program is broken down into 12 levels, with swimmers progressing as they master new skills.

Of course, that doesn’t mean every four-year-old is going to take to swimming like the proverbial fish to water. If it’s a battle to get the shampoo out of your child’s hair at bath time for example, or he’d rather stay on shore than stick as much as a baby toe into the water, he may not be ready for swimming lessons. Keep your child’s comfort level in mind. 

Parent-and-tot swim classes are a stress-free way for young children to start. However, don’t expect your baby or toddler to master any swim strokes or to pick up any water safety smarts as a result of splashing around in your arms. According to the CPS, parents sometimes make the mistake of assuming such classes make young children capable of supervising themselves around water. Swimming lessons do not drown-proof a child.

As far as swimming milestones go, according to the Red Cross, most children between three and five years old are willing to put their faces in the water and blow bubbles. As for actual swimming — putting one arm in front of the other and making your way across the pool — that comes a little later. According to Lesley Taylor, Program Advisor, Water Safety Services, for the Canadian Red Cross in Western Canada, kids typically master the front float first. Then they learn to kick and glide. Finally, they master the front crawl and the back crawl—or vice versa. (Different strokes for different folks, you know!) 

At what age is a child at the greatest risk of drowning?
Children between one and four face the greatest risk. In fact, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental injury among children in this age range, second only to motor vehicle accidents. While drowning deaths involving infants typically occur in the bathtub, drowning deaths involving toddlers are most likely to occur as the result of a fall into a pool. 

Teenage boys between 15 and 19 face the second highest risk of drowning. (Alcohol is often a major contributing factor.)

Is it safe to take a very young baby (i.e. one who is too small for a life jacket) in a boat? 
There aren’t any personal flotation devices approved for use on children under 20 lb. (9 kg). Therefore, the Canadian Coast Guard recommends parents refrain from taking very young babies in boats. If your cottage is accessible only by water, you may want to consider taking a summer off. 

How can you tell if water is clean enough for kids to swim in?

While you can usually spot the warning signs that a pool or lake is too dirty — the water is murky or stagnant and covered in scum — don’t assume that because the lake looks pristine or the pool crystal clear that it’s suitable for swimming.

The only way to know for sure is to check with the appropriate authorities — the pool administrator in the case of a public pool, or your local health unit in the case of a public beach. It’s definitely worth checking; you could end up with a smorgasbord of nasty souvenirs as a result of a dip in dirty water — eye, ear, and skin infections, gastroenteritis and hepatitis A. 

When is it safe for my child to go in a hot tub?

Hot tubs pose a number of hazards to young children, which is why pediatricians generally recommend  that kids under age five steer clear of hot tubs, and that older kids — if they use them at all — should be closely supervised and be in them only for a few minutes at a time.

Here’s why: The heat from a hot tub can very quickly overheat a young child’s body; the suction from a hot tub can trap a young child underwater; and hot tubs can become breeding grounds for all kinds of bacteria, which can lead to eye, ear, skin, and other types of infections. Bottom line? Hot tubs are designed for recreational use by adults, not children. 

Back to Basics

These are the key rules around water that every child, teen and grownup should know.

Rules for kids:

  • Always swim with a buddy.
  • Look before you leap. Each time you enter a beach or unfamiliar swimming pool, go in feet first.
  • Walk, don’t run; pool decks and docks can become slippery when wet.
  • Stay away from suction lines, pool drains, or anywhere else where you could become trapped.

Rules for teens:

  • Never dive into shallow water (less than 2.77 metres (9 feet) deep if you’re diving from the edge of a pool. If you’re diving off a board, even deeper water is required.
  • Only one person on the diving board at a time.
  • No diving while someone is swimming in the water underneath the diving board.
  • Once you dive in, swim away so that the next diver won’t hit you.
  • Don’t allow anyone to go swimming or boating if they’ve been drinking. Water and alcohol don’t mix.

Rules for grownups:

  • Don’t let your child swim in a neighbour’s pool unless you’re certain she’ll be properly supervised. At a minimum, you want to make sure the neighbour is aware of your child’s swimming ability (or lack thereof).
  • Insist that young children and non-swimmers wear personal flotation devices (PFDs) when in or around water, particularly if there’s a chance the supervising adult could become distracted.
  • When there’s a large group at the pool or lake, make sure one person is in charge of supervising the kids. And if you are the designated watcher, it’s important to give your undivided attention to supervising swimmers — this is not the time to multitask!
  • Don’t saddle school-aged siblings with the responsibility for supervising younger siblings in the pool. They may not have the attention span or maturity to do the job. 

Find out more

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including The Mother of All Parenting Books.