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You May Be Surprised By One of the Most At-Risk Age Groups for Drowning

Now that we’re firmly in the heat of the summer season, we’ll all find ourselves heading to the pools, lakes, watering holes and water parks in our areas to try and stay cool. While swimming is a fun outdoor activity for the whole family, water safety is no joke — as hundreds of children die and thousands are hospitalized from drowning events each year.

For parents of smaller children, the best-practices for water safety are probably deeply familiar: Keep an eye on kids near water and prevent unsupervised accidental access to it (ex: pool perimeter fences, draining tubs full of water, kiddie pools when not in use, etc.) whenever possible and establish clear water safety rules for your family as your kids get older. Yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found in some recent research that older children — teen boys in particular — are another demographic that are most at risk of drowning.

In the report, published in Pediatrics this month, researchers examined drowning incidents and different intervention practices (from swim lessons to lifeguards on duty) to find out how best to prevent terrible incidents and found that male teen boys and male toddlers were the most at risk of accidental drowning injury or death.

“Drowning is quick and silent — not at all what people might expect — and it can happen in a bathtub, an inflatable backyard pool or hotel pool or beach where lifeguards are on duty,” said Sarah Denny, MD, FAAP, lead author of the report, written by the AAP Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. “Parents may expect to hear a child splashing or crying if they are in trouble in the water, but often that is just not the case. We do have strategies to prevent these tragedies, which include not only close supervision but putting up physical barriers to prevent children’s access to water.”

But while the advice on water safety with small children remains something often talked about each year as the weather gets warmer, we don’t always offer the same energy to parents of teen boys and other children (who are more likely be swimming unsupervised with permission) and, per the AAP, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury-related death in children and teens between the ages of five and 19.

“Drowning is quick and silent — not at all what people might expect — and it can happen in a bathtub, an inflatable backyard pool or hotel pool or beach where lifeguards are on duty.”

Per the research, about “75 percent of all children and teen drowning victims are male. Teenage boys are 10 times more likely to experience drowning than females, possibly due to greater exposure to aquatic environments, overestimation of swimming ability, higher risk taking, and greater alcohol use.”

Most health professionals will remind us that the teenage brain is prone to some of those higher risk-taking, lower sense-of-consequences behaviors, so even otherwise “strong swimmers” or generally athletic teens may not recognize when they are heading into an unsafe situation. So, particularly if you know your older teen is out on the water or by the pool with friends (particularly if they or someone they’re with might be under the influence), try to have a conversation with them about being smart around the water and their comfort level swimming unassisted.

(Note: I did work as a waterfront lifeguard for six years and absolutely recognize how easy it is for folks to overestimate their ability, strength and comfort level — particularly if it’s their first time swimming in a while. Also, remember that most pool toys, floaties, etc. are not considered emergency flotation devices and aren’t strong enough to get a struggling swimmer out of a dangerous situation. This has been a water safety PSA.)

Other insights from researchers include noting that drowning rates were found to be higher in Black and Indigenous/Alaska Native children and that Black children between ages five and 19 were 5.5 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children in the same age range: “With no physiological differences to explain the difference in drowning risk, experts believe poor swimming skills in both children and their parents, lack of early training, and lack of lifeguards at motel/hotel and apartment pools may be important factors.”

The AAP goes on to recommend having multiple layers of prevention for protecting kids of all ages from drowning: Having ample attentive supervision, lifeguards on duty and attending swimming lessons, if possible. And as your kids get older, water safety advice should always evolve to make sure your child (and eventually your teen) recognizes potentially risky environments and knows how to recognize a dangerous situation, listen to their body and stay safe.

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