Drowning myths

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There are many misconceptions that exist around toddler drowning that can potentially be very dangerous. Read on to find out the realities about some of these issues.

MYTH: Toddler drowning isn’t a big problem in Australia anymore.

FACT: Drowning has certainly decreased in Australia over the last 20 years, largely thanks to strong pool fencing legislation and a high level of community awareness around the issue. Despite this, drowning remains the leading cause of preventable death in children under five in Australia. In WA, after years of consistent decline, 2013 was the worst year we’ve seen in a decade for toddler drowning.

There are also dozens of toddlers admitted to hospital each year in WA following a non-fatal drowning. Some of these children will recover with no ill effects while others will face life-long impairment as the result of a brain injury.

The unknown quantity is the number of children who begin to drown but are rescued just in time. These situations could have ended very differently and can still have consequences such as future anxiety about water for both parents and children.

Even one young life lost is one too many.

MYTH: I don’t have a home pool so my child isn’t at risk of drowning.

FACT: In WA, home swimming pools account for only half of toddler drowning deaths. Toddlers can drown in as little as 3cm of water. This means that any water location around the home has potential to be the site of a drowning tragedy. Baths, buckets, fishponds, fountains and inflatable paddle pools are all places where toddlers can and do drown.

Even if you don’t own a pool, grandparents, other family members or neighbours may have one. If they don’t regularly have young children visiting the property they may not have strict water safety rules and precautions in place. Be mindful of this when visiting other peoples’ homes and ensure they are aware of the risk that water poses to children.

MYTH: Toddler drowning is due to parents not watching their children closely enough around water.

FACT: It’s true that in many toddler drowning cases, a lack of adequate supervision was the most significant contributing factor. However, this doesn’t mean that these parents were negligent or deliberately left their children around water. Drowning can occur in minutes and in most cases supervision is absent for as little as 2–5 minutes while parents attend to other children, perform household chores or simply lose sight of their child. Often the child is last seen in the house and accesses water unnoticed.

Regardless of how vigilant parents are, it is impossible to supervise children every minute of the day, which is why other layers of protection such as pool fencing are so important. It remains the case, however, that when toddlers are in or around water, a responsible adult needs to be supervising within arm’s reach so they can respond quickly if something goes wrong.

MYTH: Children still drown in fenced pools so fences aren’t effective.

FACT: Western Australia has some of the strongest pool fencing legislation in the world and as a result there has been a significant drop in pool drowning deaths in children under the age of five over the last two decades. Australian studies conducted after the introduction of four-sided (isolation) pool fencing reported that this type of fencing reduced toddler drowning by up to 80%.

Fences and gates that are not compliant or are incorrectly used are the primary way that children get into pools. There are many reasons why a toddler may be able to access a fenced pool area:

  • Gate is left propped open while people enter and exit the pool area
  • Gate is not self-closing or self-latching so children can easily pull it open
  • Fencing is loose or broken, creating gaps that children can slip through
  • Climbable objects such as trees or furniture are nearby

Having a fence in place is the first step but maintaining the fence over time will ensure it provides the greatest protection to children.

MYTH: Drowning is noisy. I’ll hear my child struggling and be able to respond.

FACT: Childhood drowning is not like the movies. You will not hear your child splashing or calling for help. Most young children don’t have the cognitive ability, physical strength or coordination to right themselves if they are submerged in water. Toddlers can very quickly swallow water, lose consciousness and sink – all in complete silence. Visual supervision is essential.

MYTH: My baby will be fine in the bath while I duck into the next room.

FACT: For children under the age of one, the bathtub is the most common site for drowning to occur. Tragically, this often occurs while parents quickly leave the bathroom to answer the telephone or to get something that has been forgotten such as dry clothes.

A baby can drown in just 30 seconds so if you need to leave the room for any length of time while bathing your baby, ALWAYS remove them from the water and either take them with you or place them somewhere safe. Even if they are capable of sitting up in the bath there is still a chance they can slip under water.

MYTH: My child can swim so they aren't at risk of drowning.

FACT: Your child may appear confident in the water while you're swimming with them but what if you weren't there. There is no swimming program that can 'drown-proof' your child and even children who spend a lot of time in the water are still at risk of drowning.

Often when toddlers drown in pools they have accessed the water by themselves. If they fall in, slip off a step or are in an unfamiliar water environment they are likely to panic and not apply their swimming skills. Swimming skills should never be the first line of defence against toddler drowning. There is NO substitute for adult supervision.

MYTH: My older children are responsible - they can supervise their younger siblings around water.

FACT: Even children who appear mature should not be left to supervise toddlers around water. Children can become easily distracted and not notice that a toddler has come into trouble or they might think that their younger sibling is ‘playing’ in the water. As a result they may not pull the toddler to safety or alert adults that something has gone wrong in time. Putting a child in charge of other children’s lives is an unfair burden.

MYTH: Floaties will protect my children from drowning.

FACT: Floaties such as rings or armbands are a tool to help your child become comfortable in the water but they are NOT lifesaving devices! Unlike lifejackets, floaties are not designed to tip people onto their back, so children can fall face-first into water even while they remain floating. Floaties can also pop or slip off while in the water so should only be used under supervision. Ensure your child gets experience swimming without floaties so they don’t become too reliant on the additional buoyancy they provide.

MYTH: Above-ground pools don’t need pool fences.

FACT: Above-ground pools capable of containing water more than 300mm (30cm) deep are subject to exactly the same pool fencing legislation as below-ground pools. If you have purchased an above-ground pool and have not fenced it, you may face a fine from your local council.

If a pool is not fenced toddlers can climb steps, ladders or filtration equipment to get into it. A pool cover is not sufficient as it may become dislodged and children can become trapped underneath it. These types of pools are growing in popularity and are available cheaply. Ensure you’re aware of your responsibilities before purchasing one.

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