8 Crucial Water Safety Tips Lifeguards Wish Parents Knew

Top water safety experts weigh in on what parents miss when it comes to pool and beach safety.

Bounce once, bounce forward

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There’s a right and wrong way to bounce on a diving board. Bounce once, and jump straight ahead—not to the side. Bouncing twice can cause you to slip or land in shallow water. “Boards were developed for professional divers,” says Tom Gill, public information officer for the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) and a lifeguard in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “When people use them in smaller pools and double bounce, they can overshoot and go farther than the deep end. It can also make you belly flop.” Jump straight ahead to avoid crashing into the side of the pool. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that about 111,000 diving-related injuries in people under age 19 were treated in emergency rooms from 1990 to 2006. The main cause of injury? Collision with the diving board or platform.

Floaties don’t always keep a child afloat

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A lifeguard’s rule of thumb: Don’t float where you can’t swim. Not only can floaties slip off, they can give children a false sense of confidence in their swimming abilities. For young children or inexperienced swimmers, opt for a more secure life jacket, and check the label to make sure it is U.S. Coast Guard-approved and appropriate for your child’s chest size and weight. When the life jacket is on, there should be no extra space above the arm openings, so it doesn’t cover your child's face in the water. “We still want parents to be very closely watching their kids whenever they’re in the water,” says Michael Creegan, aquatics director at the YMCA of greater New York. “Beginner swimmers should stay in water that’s up to their chest in depth or shallower, even if they have a life jacket on.” Drowing looks differently than you might think. Here are 8 silent signs of someone drowning.

Stop the holding-breath games

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Who can hold their breath longer? It’s an everyday pool dare, but also a risky game. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently issued a report linking underwater breath holding to fatal drowning incidents. Shallow-water blackout is loss of consciousness from intentionally restraining from breathing underwater, usually on the shallow end of the pool. “Kids overexert themselves and pass out underwater,” says Pete DeQuincy, aquatics manager at East Bay Regional Park District in California. Though nationwide incidents are difficult to track, the CDC reports 16 shallow-water blackouts in New York State from 1988 to 2011. Four were fatal.

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Parents, please, put the phone away

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“The phone is the biggest distraction we see,” says DeQuincy.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that injuries involving swimming pools climbed 36 percent in children under 5 years old between 2007 and 2010, a time period in which adult smartphone use also skyrocketed. Though the association does not prove that phones were solely responsible, keep the phone down and stay alert to help keep your child safe.

Treat swimming like a soccer tournament

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Swimming can be as exhausting as any other sport. Have your children take breaks every two hours to rest, reapply sunscreen, and have a snack. (Contrary to common belief, lifeguards say it’s perfectly safe to swim after eating). Avoid junk food at the concession stand, and instead pack snacks that you would take to a soccer game, such as fruit, trail mix, and sports drinks with electrolytes.

Beware of a 'clean pool' smell

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“Generally, if a facility has that strong, funky chlorine odor, it’s not actually the chlorine you smell,” says Creegan. “It’s a byproduct that builds up from contact with sweat and urine in the water. In a well-run pool, you’re not going to have that odor.” It’s why locker room signs ask guests to shower before jumping in: Your skin carries natural oils, makeup, sweat, urine, and even fecal matter. All of these bodily elements contain nitrogen, which mixes with the pool’s chlorine and forms chemical irritants that give off that “pool” smell. These irritants may trigger asthma attacks and skin irritation in some people.

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Observe the water at the beach

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Murky water is often a sign that there’s a rip current beneath the surface. “A rip current often occurs because there’s a break in the sand bar,” says Gill. “When that sand bar breaks down, it creates the effect of rushing water moving backward. A large area of the water will look darker and sometimes foamy.” A rip current, which can occur at any time (even in knee-deep water), can carry even strong swimmers away from the shore in oceans or large lakes. The USLA estimates that rip currents account for more than 80 percent of surf beach lifeguard rescues. Teach children how to react if they get caught in a rip current. Rip currents don’t pull people under water, but away from shore; drowning occurs when people can’t stay afloat or return to shore because of exhaustion or lack in swimming skills. Remain calm and float until you can escape the current by swimming horizontally to the shoreline.

Don’t be afraid to ask

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If you have a safety-related question, ask a lifeguard. But don’t be offended when he or she doesn’t make eye contact with you. “We may not look you in the eye because we’re watching the water,” says Gill. “Come to the front of the stand, rather than the side, so we can have a conversation while keeping an eye out.” Even more importantly, remember to always swim near an attended lifeguard post. There’s a one in 18 million chance of drowning on a beach protected by a lifeguard, according to the USLA.

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