Safe and Swimming: A Q&A with GBMC Pediatric Group’s Rachel Plotnik

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With summer in full swing, many of us are quickly approaching beach-side vacations, hotel stays and poolside fun. But it’s important to stay vigilant. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also advises that some of the best ways to prevent drowning include learning basic swimming and water safety skills, building fences that fully enclose pools, supervising children closely, using life jackets and knowing CPR.

We spoke with Doctor Rachel Plotnick, of GBMC’s Pediatric Group, in Towson, Maryland, to learn more about how parents can keep their children safe this summer. Plotnick, who is a mother of three herself, had plenty to share.

What age should children learn to swim?

It depends. A lot of kids don’t have access to good quality swim lessons. Introduce kids to water at age 1, even if it’s just water play—splashing, learning what to do with water, blowing bubbles, wearing goggles, just learning. Starting at 1, you can start to teach them things like kicking and turning to the side to get up out of the water if they fall in.

Why should children learn to swim as soon as possible?

Because it’s one part of helping to protect them from drowning, and we know drowning is the leading cause of death in kids. It’s the number one cause of death in kids ages 1-4.

How can parents educate their children about the dangers of water without making them more afraid?

Think about the emotional maturity of the child and how much they can handle. You can’t teach a 1-year-old to stay out of something; you have to build a fence. You can’t rely on them to not go in the water without someone present; you need a physical barrier (for young children).

Luckily a lot of pools have those water splash area pads with a hose or sprinkler. Teach them it’s fun to play in the water. Kids have a natural inclination to be attracted to water because it’s a lot of fun, but I think one of the issues is a lot of kids get afraid of having water near their faces.

If a child doesn’t want to learn, how can parents help encourage them?

I would have them wear a life jacket in the water so they can still experience water even if they aren’t a swimmer. Obviously, they should still be supervised. That way they can still have fun without worrying about figuring it out.

Figure out what it is about the water they don’t like. Whether it’s putting their face in, being splashed or temperature. Should we try a warmer pool? Is a group swim lesson too much?

Do your kids know how to swim? Was it hard to get them to learn?

Yes! It was a lot of driving to swim lessons. It was Tuesdays. That was the day I’d take the girls to swim lessons after work. They didn’t want to go at first. They were toddlers, 2 to 5. It’s a lot. It was a long day, and they knew they would be tired afterward. They’d swim, I’d shower them at the pool, [and] then we’d get right home and to bed.

I wanted to make sure my kids were swimming at supervised pools and knew how to swim. That they knew how to get to the side—that was really important to me. When my little one was 1 and a half, I put him in a drowning prevention class.

It was about teaching him to turn, kick and reach for the wall if he was ever in a pool and didn’t feel like he was safe.

Swim lessons don’t drown-proof kids; they’re just one layer of protection. We still have to monitor them and supervise them. There are also special circumstances for kids with seizure disorders or autism who might be at higher risk for drowning.

Should parents know child CPR? Where can they learn?

Yep! There’s a lot of material online to find out and learn CPR. You can also work with a mannequin (in many programs). Your chances of survival after drowning go up significantly if someone initiates CPR right there.

How is Child CPR different?

There’s more of an emphasis with children on the airway— breathing for them, and the breath you give and how much you push on the chest is gentler.

Are air-filled floatation devices safe?

So, obviously, they can’t be relied on the same way as a life jacket. They can lose air unexpectedly; they can get away from the child unexpectedly. We can’t rely on them to be there in the child’s time of need. With a life jacket, if you get toppled in the water, it stays on.

What else should parents keep in mind?

Teaching kids to get to the side is important, and even more so is prevention—preventing unsupervised access to water. Most kids that drowned weren’t expected to be in a body of water.  Try to make sure the pools your child is around are secured, and if you’re staying at a beach house or house with a pool, make sure it has a gate, and if it doesn’t have a gate, you can’t let your child go outside. You might have to change your level of supervision at a vacation home.


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