Water Safety - My Family Travels

Follow a pro as she guides parents from water play to the first swim lesson, to water safety, and finally, to the current fashion trends in aquanaut gear.

The desire to see, feel or hear water is universal. People from all walks of life seek its soothing yet refreshing nature. Water makes us want to play, frees the senses; it stimulates and excites us. To me, the presence of a pool or beach makes any trip feel like a vacation. Whatever your favorite water hole, here are some suggestions on how to have fun and play it safe with kids of every age.

6 Months to 2 Years: Water Play

Before plunging in, find out the water temperature. Most kids don't like cold water, especially below 79° F (recreational pools are heated to 82-86° F; lap pools to 78-82° F.) If you want your baby to learn how to swim, both of you should be relaxed in the water. Most infants are naturally buoyant; they need less physical support but more breath control than older children.

Begin by holding her loosely around the chest, just under the arms, so her face is just above the water. If your baby can control her own breathing without straining, let her legs dangle. When she's calm, sing, talk, and push and pull her through the water. Your baby will love whatever water play your imagination conjures up.

3 to 8 Years: First Swim Lesson

As an aquatics instructor, I don't recommend inflatable flotation devices for non-swimmers, i.e. arm swimmies or water wings. They can give children and supervising adults a false sense of security, deflate easily, and restrict an instinctive swimmer's natural movements.

Remember, you must remain with a child wearing any flotation device (including a life jacket, ice cube or foam block, inner tube-filled swim suit, Safe-T-Seal and others).

At first, these devices may float or push a child face down if they don't move their arms. Adults should take children's hands and show them how they can scoop handfuls of water to move forward. Then you can introduce familiar elements in the pool, such as favorite bath toys, to chase around. Encourage any kind of movement. Demonstrate how to blow bubbles and how to spit water out of the mouth.

Children beam with excitement once they experience a sense of independence in the water. Though I'm not yet a parent, that glow always fills me with the warmest feelings.

6 Months to 16 Years: Pool Safety

Teach your children to always look for a lifeguard or ask for adult supervision before swimming. I even recommend to fairly good swimmers to make sure someone is aware that they're in the water.  This is especially true for kids! I believe no child should ever be left alone around any amount of water.

Depending on the level of proficiency, there are lots of fun and safe water games you can play to encourage swimming skills. Four to 8-year-olds like Marco Polo, Sharks and Minnows, and kickboard races. With 8-16 year olds, review the facility's regulations and health rules so that everyone understands guidelines for acceptable behavior.

Never assume that a teenager engaged in group water play is adequately looking after a younger child or non-swimmer.

Aquanaut Gear

As toddlers get more comfortable exerting themselves in the water, I recommend a solid foam flotation vest called Safe-T-Seal LittleSwimr. The vest fabric is filled with flotation cards that you add or remove according to the child's skill level. What I like best is that this product allows free movement of arms and legs.

I strongly recommend against personal flotation devices for smaller children. Preschoolers love to play on big inflatable rafts, toy boats, and silly animals. However, in fun park wave pools or open water, an inflatable flotation toy or ring can turn a child upside down, and hold them with quite a resistance. Ocean and sea currents can be strong and change without warning. Just as toddlers at the water's edge need supervision, adults should hold onto smaller children with any flotation device, even if they're only in water up to their waists.

Off to the Arctic with young swimmers? Don't despair! Wet suits are a new fashion trend that really keep kids warm! As alternative swim wear, they can be quite versatile, offering protection from the sun, a lightweight shield against scrapes and stings, and as an extra bonus, additional buoyancy. Personally, I wear a short one when I'm teaching all day in the pool, and I recommend the same to students who get cold easily.

Wet suits come in different sizes and colors; I've seen short suits small enough to fit 2's, and wetsuit vests to fit 10-month olds. Of course, they're not cheap: neoprene wet suits range from $30-$200 on up.

Once they have a wetsuit, your teenagers would probably love to talk you into getting a Boogie Board and fins. Again, they're not cheap, but they are a lot of fun. Kids ride a boogie board like a very short surfboard, remaining on their stomachs. They use the fins to spin around on top of the waves to create a liquid roller coaster! Not to mention that they really do look very cool with all this gear. Before you invest, call ahead to find out if your beach resort rents boards and fins. The local dive shop may rent wetsuits.

Don't forget the sunscreen. It should be waterproof, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15; SPF30 is used on children up to 6 years but must be reapplied more often than the label suggests. And for tough-to-please teenagers, buy Bullfrog. It's what I use, surfers use, and it'll go with the cool motif.  Trust me.

FTF's Pool & Open Water Safety Essentials

According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, an average of 350 children under 5 years drown each year in swimming pools, in addition to another 2,600 serious near drownings which occur. Here are some tips from Maria Mason to help get you and the whole family started on the road to swim safety.

1. Call the National Recreation & Parks Association (703/858-0784) or the local chapter of the American Red Cross for accredited swim programs in your area.

2. Wet Set brand inflatable toys are top quality and moderately priced. They are sold at major drug stores, discount department stores, and some toy stores. Visit www.intexcorp.com for an inventory of products.

3. Safe-T-Seal Swimrs are sold at most Toys R' Us stores and major retail stores.

4. Wet suits should fit fairly snugly; height, weight, length of torso, and size of waist and hips are critical. Children's wetsuits are sold at Swim and Scuba (516/872-4571), Paragon Sports, Scuba Network (212/750-9160 in NY) — any large dive shop in your area should also carry them.

5. If you know your child's correct size, you can order a wet suit directly from a discount dive shop. I recommend Divers Direct (800/DIVE-USA) in Key Largo, Florida.

Water Park Safety Tips

Water parks have a vested interest in keeping their customers safe, too. The Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, waterpark capital of the USA, says water safety is not only important during a family vacation. It can also be a matter of life and death at home, at a classmate's birthday party, or at a neighborhood pool. Read on for their important safety tips.

1. Learn to swim. Children (and adults) should always be comfortable with the water and swimming before a day at the waterpark, beach, or pool.

2. Always follow the rules, read signs around swimming areas, and listen to lifeguards on duty. Remember that running can cause slips, falls, and injuries. For extra traction and protection, try water shoes which are generally permitted in all waterparks.

3. Ensure that there are emergency numbers, a telephone, and life preservers nearby and learn infant and child CPR.

4. Adults (not other children) must supervise children in the pool at all times. Always check back to the pool first if a child is missing!

5. Be aware that drowning often happens in silence; don't expect to hear flailing or screams.

6. Prevent choking by spitting out your chewing gum and clearing food from the swimming area.

7. Remove flotation devices and toys from the empty pool to avoid temptation. These are not safety devices, and a beach ball or smiling dolphin could lure a child into the pool unsupervised. If you need a flotation device, always use a life vest instead of floaties and toys.

8. Since infants can drown in a few inches of water, drain wading pools when supervised play is over.

9. Before diving in, check depth of pools and waterparks, including shallow play areas for toddlers.

10. Always observe a waterslide, diving board, and water activities to know how everything works and what to expect before jumping in.

11. Before a day of water play, choose a meeting area such as the first aid station in the event your group becomes separated.

If you own a pool, remember to create multiple obstacles to children sneaking in by themselves. A fence, a pool cover, and an alarm can be an effective combination. Also, remove the ladder of an above ground pool when not in use. Most importantl, educate your children about water safety— teach them that safety and family fun can go together!

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