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Water safety for young children

Highlights
  • All children should be supervised by an adult when they are in or around water and should never be left alone in a pool or bathtub, even for a moment.
  • Remember that water wings, bathing suits with flotation devices in them, inflatable wings and other swim toys ARE NOT safety devices.

Drowning is the second most common cause of death for children under 5 years of age. Children can drown in as little as 2.5 cm (1 inch) of water.

Many of these tragedies happen in backyard pools, and almost always in pools without 4-side pool fencing and self-closing, self-latching safety gates.

Take the following essential precautions to help protect your children: 

  • Babies who cannot sit without support and are too young to wear a portable flotation device (PFD) should be held by an adult at all times.
  • Toddlers should always be within arm’s reach of an adult when they are in or around water. This includes pools, bathtubs, and beaches, and other water sources.
  • Swimming lessons are a great opportunity for families to participate in fun activities that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. But on their own, they will not protect or prevent a child from drowning.
  • All children should be supervised by an adult when they are in or around water and should never be left alone in a pool or bathtub, even for a moment.
  • The Lifesaving Society recommends a supervision ratio of at least 1 adult for every 2 young children, and 1 adult for every baby.

Should I use a life jacket or a personal flotation device (PFD) for my child?

Life jackets are different from PFDs. A life jacket can turn the person over from face-down to face-up. A PFD will keep a person floating, but not necessarily face-up. It is lighter and less bulky than a lifejacket. PFDs also keep people warmer in the water because the foam in the vest is spread more evenly around the body.

You can use either a lifejacket or a PFD for your child, as long as it is designed for children.

In Canada, approved life jackets and PFDs are not available for infants who weigh less than 9 kg (20 lb). There is no safety standard for smaller infants. 

  • PFDs or life jackets should be worn by all infants who weigh at least 9 kg (20 lb) and by toddlers who are swimming or playing near or in the water.
  • Check the label to be sure that your child’s PFD or life jacket meets current national safety standards. It should be approved by at least one of the following: Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard or Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • It should be the right size for your child’s weight. Make sure it stays buckled up. Keep all safety straps fastened, including the crotch strap.
  • Remember that water wings, bathing suits with flotation devices in them, inflatable wings and other swim toys ARE NOT safety devices.

What should we do if we have a swimming pool at home?

  • Swimming pools—whether in- or above-ground—should be fenced on four sides. That means NOT having direct access to a pool from a deck, patio or back door (the house doesn’t count as a “side”). The fence should be climbing-resistant and at least 1.2 m (4 ft.) high. Any gate to the pool area should be self-closing and self-latching.
  • Make sure that hot tubs and spas not contained within the fenced pool area have a locking hard cover or are located in an area that can be closed and locked.
  • Empty toddler and other portable backyard pools after use (at least once daily if you are using them every day). By not having standing water, you also help reduce the risk of West Nile Virus.
  • Parents and pool owners should learn how to swim and how to rescue a drowning victim. They should also maintain certification in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Pool owners should have an emergency action plan, rescue equipment, and a telephone on the deck or poolside.
  • Slide or play equipment should be designed specifically for pool use.

What are some other water safety tips?

  • Use diapers designed for use in water. They don’t get as heavy as regular diapers and are less likely to cause your child to lose his balance in a wading pool.
  • Empty buckets and pails, ice chests with melted ice, or bathtubs as soon as you are done with them. Do not keep a container filled with water (such as a rain barrel) around your home.
  • When your children are playing under a sprinkler, watch for pools of water collecting on the ground. They can be slippery. Move the sprinkler often, or take a break until the water has drained. Use sprinklers on grassy surfaces only, and make sure the play area is free of toys or other obstacles.
  • A backyard water slide should be used with caution. Set it up on a soft, grassy slope, free of bumps, and well away from trees or shrubs. Teach children to slide in a sitting position.
  • Keep children away from ponds and streams at any time of year, unless you are with them.

When can my child take swimming lessons?

There is not a lot of research about the exact age when young children are ready to learn how to swim. Several studies show that children do not have the skills to swim on their own until they are 4 years old, even if they start lessons at a younger age. 

If your child is younger than 4 years old, look for swimming programs that focus on building water confidence and that teach parents about water safety. This is a great way to have fun and be active with your children.

Teach your children these important pool rules and follow them at all times:

  • No swimming without an adult.
  • No running or pushing.
  • No food or drinks.
  • No riding toys.

Source: Well Beings: A Guide to Health in Child Care (3rd edition)



Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Injury Prevention Committee

Last Updated: April 2011