Person in the water
For older kids and competent swimmers, it's helpful to establish a buddy system and ensure kids are always swimming within the view of a friend or relative. Picture used for illustrative purposes only. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in US, and experts believe there is much more parents should be doing to prevent these tragedies. "No one thinks that it's going to happen to them," said Chezik Tsunoda, whose 3-year-old son drowned in 2018. "It takes the amount of time to read and answer a cellphone message for your child to drown." Before a child becomes a strong swimmer, their first protective layer in the water is always their parent or guardian. No lifeguard or flotation device will ever come close to protecting a child as well as an adult who is attentive, free from distractions and focused only on them, said Juliene Hefter, executive director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit.

Here's what Hefter and other experts recommend:

Don't rely on lifeguards

If you have a choice between swimming somewhere with or without lifeguards, it's a good idea to swim in the place that's guarded. Lifeguards are typically trained to scan water for signs of distress and perform lifesaving procedures in the event something goes wrong. Lifeguards save thousands of people each year.

However, they are prone to oversights and mistakes. Many lifeguards are young. The quality of their training may vary widely. And often, their attention is divided across dozens of swimmers, especially as facilities across the country experience a critical shortage of lifeguards.

Weaker swimmers and non-swimmers need an adult who can focus on them at all times and stay within an arm's reach, Hefter said. For older kids and competent swimmers, it's helpful to establish a buddy system and ensure kids are always swimming within the view of a friend or relative.

"Lifeguards are there to help enforce rules and regulations," Hefter said. "If you bring a child to a facility, you are ultimately responsible for that child's safety."

Enroll in swim lessons

A child that learns to swim early in life will have the best chance at staying safe. Swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning among children ages 1 to 4 by 88 percent, one 2009 study showed.

"It is very rare that someone with swim lessons drowns in a pool," said Mick Nelson, co-owner of Total Aquatic Programming, who collects research on thousands of drowning deaths a year.

Parents should start introducing a child to water as soon as the child is able to crawl, experts said. On its website, the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, an educational nonprofit, says there are five basic skills every swimmer needs to learn to be safe:

1) Step or jump into the water over your head.
2) Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute.
3) Turn around in a full circle and find an exit.
4) Swim 25 yards to the exit.
5) Exit from the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.

For a variety of reasons, many kids don't learn to swim. Children whose parents cannot swim are unlikely to ever learn themselves.

Use life jackets

Most states in the US require children under 12 to wear life jackets when they're on a boat. But their use is more sporadic in pools, where some parents worry that floaties and life jackets interfere with learning how to swim or give their children a false sense of confidence.

Hefter says anytime a child is swimming for fun, they should wear a life jacket that fits them properly and has been approved for use by the US Coast Guard (look for this on a label inside the jacket). She does not recommend relying on any device that requires inflating.

During swim lessons, flotation devices can be removed as long as children are under the close supervision of an adult and the risks of drowning are clearly communicated, Hefter said.

"Educate your children: When you're wearing this, you can float in the water. If you're not wearing this, you cannot float in the water," she said.

Designate a water watcher

Distracted adults lead to water deaths. Most children who drown do so under the supervision of an adult, who may have been checking a phone, watching TV or thinking that another adult was watching the kids.

When groups of people are swimming together at social events or at home, aquatic experts recommend designating one adult to be a "water watcher," whose job is to scan the water at all times and be free from distractions, including cellphones and alcohol. Wearing a physical reminder of this responsibility, such as a laminated card hung around their neck, can help the water watcher stay focused on protecting the people in the water.

Meow Meow Foundation, a nonprofit started by the parents of a 6-year-old who drowned at a summer camp, offers free laminated water-watcher badges as part of a "drowning prevention toolkit" on its website.

Ask questions of camps

A parent may strictly enforce water safety precautions in their own time, but the minute they send their kids to camp, they are entrusting someone else to take those same precautions.

Hefter recommends asking camps for their written policies on water safety before sending a child. The camp should have lifeguards who have been trained and certified. It should also perform monthly skills checkups and emergency drills. The lifeguards should never be treated as a substitute for a counselor who is assigned to directly supervise a child at all times, even when they go in the water, she said.

The camp should administer a swim test and have a system for identifying weak swimmers, such as wristbands. They should give a talk about water safety. They should give campers breaks from swimming every 30 or 45 minutes. And parents should ask whether they or the camp are responsible for providing life jackets.

Install fences, pool covers and alarms

Many drownings in home pools occur when no one is swimming or thinking about the pool and a child wanders off on their own.

Experts recommend a four-sided fence around every home pool, to completely separate the pool from both the children inside the home and any neighboring children. The gate should open away from the pool and have a self-locking mechanism.

Pool covers and alarms on windows, doors, gates and the pool itself provide another layer of protection. Newer technologies, such as camera systems that recognize when someone is motionless at the bottom of a pool, offer one more line of defense.