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As a youth, I was a swimming teacher for many years for infants all the way up to adults. During this time, I observed some interesting dynamics and learned some important keys about how to keep children safe in the water. There are some very simple, yet vital things we can do as parents to raise the level of water safety for our children. After reading a recent Time
article titled "Children under Age 4 Are at Highest Risk for Drowning,"
I wanted to share a few of my observations.
The use of water wings and life jackets has become commonplace. However, I believe they are an overused and often misinformed way of keeping our little ones safe. First, we need to put water wings in proper perspective. One of the biggest problems is that parents believe their children are safe in water wings, and they let down their guard. I even saw a parent at Chico Hot Springs a few years ago allow a toddler in the deep end of the swimming pool without adults present
because she was wearing water wings.
But even with adults present, water wings pose both short-term and long-term problems for infants and toddlers. For starters, water wings give the child a false sense of security. The child experiences (and of course enjoys) the buoyancy that water wings provide. Unfortunately, the child's sense of buoyancy is unrealistic because it comes from the water wings. Young children's prefrontal cortex—the logical part of the brain—is not yet fully developed, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to make the distinction that it is the water wings keeping them afloat, not some magical or natural ability. They only know they stay afloat. Their young minds do not discriminate that the results differ with and without water wings. So children accustomed to wearing them develop an inaccurate perception of their abilities in the water.
This is a set-up for mishaps and panic later, if they are in the water without artificial floats and start to sink. An ounce of perceived safety now yields a pound of real danger later, if the child suddenly discovers his or her lack of skill in the water, just when it's needed.
Learning in the water in the presence of attentive adults—without water wings—is one way to ensure greater safety for our children. Even though there is a place for floats, we need to properly prepare our little ones and not only provide fun but also build a strong respect for water.
Then if they find themselves under water or in deep water without water wings, they will not be taken off guard when their bodies do not float as naturally, and they will be less likely to panic.
Children need lots of experience in the water. The brain and muscles develop according to experience and the memories that are built due to that experience. The more an experience is repeated, the more solidly the brain creates pathways that build memory and skills. A child who only swims once a year will not develop strong memory pathways; a child who swims several times a week will. A child who doesn't frequent the water without water wings, however, does not develop accurate perceptions of his or her body in the water and the muscle memory needed to stay afloat. This creates a much greater opportunity for panic when the child faces an awkward situation, such as being pushed under water accidentally by an older child or slipping into a pool or out of a buoy.
All children (as well as parents who do not know how to swim or who have an aversion to the water) need to have swimming lessons and abundant water experiences to learn basic safety—such as holding your breath, turning over on your back to rest, and calming yourself mentally. Children who have developed these skills are much more equipped for whatever happens to them, unlike children who wear water wings and assume they are safe.
Also, we need to ensure that as parents and teachers, we are not distracted when we are responsible for the safety of children in the water. As a parent of three children, I totally understand the need for downtime and wanting to chat with a friend at poolside. However, due to the tremendous risk around water for young children, I recommend parents do several things.
TIPS FOR Keeping Young Children Safe in the Water
Rotate with your partner and clearly identify who is "on duty" when around a body of water. This includes bathtubs, irrigation ditches, streams, rivers and even small plastic children's pools. Infants and toddlers can easily and quickly drown in a few inches of water. With this system in place, you are far less likely to lose sight of the ultimate goal: to keep your children safe. Inattention or just plain carelessness is greatly reduced when you consciously set up a system for meeting your needs as well as your children's.
Get babies and young children in the water as soon and as much as possible. Babies love the water and naturally swim even underwater without fear. Most people forget that babies just spent 9 months swimming and floating around in the embryonic fluid. The earlier we introduce babies to swimming, the more comfortable they are with water. Start with teaching babies to blow bubbles in the bathtub. Gradually show them how to hold their breath and put their whole face in the water. Next move to a swimming pool and have them relax by floating on their back while their head is resting on your shoulder for support and reassurance. Increase difficulty as they gain confidence in the water. Consistency and repetition are the keys.
Give babies and young children experience in the water with and without water wings. Let babies experience buoyancy with water wings; then take the water wings off and let them experience the sinking effect. Do this gently and safely multiple times, until the children understand the dramatic difference between swimming with and without water wings.
When we help children—especially very young children—gain skill and experience in the water, they build confidence and develop skills ahead of time, preventing and tremendously decreasing the chances of a tragedy. Teach respect for the water the same way you teach respect for other people. Creating a healthy relationship with the water will make swimming a rich and fun part of your lives without injury or loss.
For more tips on children, teens, and parenting, visit Heartmanity.com
and add some tools to your parenting toolbox today.
Jennifer Williams' passion lies in helping parents and couples create loving and harmonious homes and communities where everyone can thrive. Jennifer's life mission is to give children and families the support and skills they need to flourish and to help build a society in which all children are loved unconditionally.
She is the founder of the Heartmanity Center and is a highly sought-after relationship expert and behavioral consultant with a proven road map to heal relationships from the inside out. Yet, Jennifer still prides herself most in being the mother of 3 grown children and in a happy marriage of 32 years. To learn how to quickly shift your life and relationships, visit www.Heartmanity.com.
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