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Make a Splash With Your Kids Over the Fourth

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WebMD Health News

July 3, 2000 -- This holiday weekend, thousands of American families will escape the summer swelter and head to pools, lakes, and oceans for an interlude of watery fun.

But to make sure the mood stays carefree, experts say that before packing the beach bag, parents should take a moment to think about water safety. Most water-related deaths and injuries among children can be prevented, they say, and the bottom line is adult supervision.

"Toddlers and children love to play in water, but don't understand the dangers of drowning," says Heather Paul, PhD, executive director of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. "And it can happen in just a matter of seconds."

Drowning is the leading cause of death in children under age 4, and happens most often in residential pools during the months of May through August, according to SAFE KIDS. Last year, there were nearly 1,000 child drownings.

Near-drownings can be almost as disastrous. "Lack of oxygen causes irreversible brain damage after four to six minutes of submersion," says David Fagin, MD, the medical director of emergency services for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite Hospital. "And almost 20% of near-drowning survivors have permanent neurological disability."

Among its prevention tips, SAFE KIDS recommends that pools be fenced on all four sides and that a telephone be at poolside at all times. Water-safety instruction for children is also advised, although some say swimming lessons can give parents a false sense of security.

"A recent study showed that kids under the age of 4 need more swimming instruction and are limited by their physical capacity," says pediatric sports medicine specialist Eric Small, MD. "So lessons for infants and toddlers don't necessarily translate to rapid mastery." Small is a member of an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) injury prevention committee and an instructor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Nor do they decrease the risk of drowning. "Aquatic readiness programs help toddlers adjust to the water, but don't include strokes or proper breathing," says Arnie Collins, a spokesperson for the YMCA of the USA. "They're not intended to drown-proof children, because only an adult can prevent a drowning."

For these reasons, the AAP recommends swimming lessons as kids approach their fifth birthday. To prevent drowning, it also urges adults to remain within an arm's reach at all times, providing what the YMCA calls "touch supervision."

"YMCA swimming lessons and Splash classes are a great way for school-age kids to learn about water safety, but constant supervision is still the bottom line," says national aquatic director Laura Slane.

Last August, one family learned this lesson the hard way. Upon returning from work to her Avenue, Md., home, Janet Murphy found her 2-year-old son, Alex, at the bottom of the family's above-ground pool. Her 17-year-old son, Michael, was babysitting, but got distracted for a moment while washing his car. But the story has a happy ending: Janet performed CPR, and Alex survived.

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