Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.
Young children can drown in as little as 20 seconds. Even in shallow water. Most kids drown when the person watching them turns away for just a second, or has no idea that their child is near the water to begin with.
That's why it's critical for you as a babysitter to know some basic water safety tips. Toddlers are especially at high risk since they're fast and not yet old enough to understand the danger.
In this article you'll learn some basic information needed to keep kids safe around water. It's the information you need to keep children in your care safe.
Water safety tips aren't just about large, deep bodies of water. Although those are certainly important. Be sure to be extra vigilant whenever you're babysitting kids around water, including:
Some of these tips may seem scary or even overdramatic. But the fact is that it only takes a moment of not paying attention for a child to drown or hurt themselves around water while you're babysitting them.
It might sound like hyperbole, but water safety is literally a matter of life and death. Especially when it comes to young children who don't yet know how to swim.
The #1 water safety tip I can give you as a babysitter is to try your best to provide constant supervision and avoid getting distracted.
When a child is drowning, it's not like what you see in the movies or on TV.
There's no flailing arms and splashing. They don't get a chance to yell for help before they quickly sink beneath the surface. By the time they realize that they're in trouble, it's usually too late.
Here are some signs to look for that may indicate that a child is drowning:
You should keep kids you're watching within arm's reach 100% of the time and give them your full attention. Especially if you're babysitting kids that you know are inexperienced, or if you're not sure how comfortable they are around water.
Take the kids with you if you need to leave the pool or beach for any reason. Whether you're going to the bathroom, getting a snack, or just hopping out for a couple of seconds to grab a toy.
When children are a bit older and you know they've taken swimming lessons and know the basics (like floating on their back or swimming longer distances) then you might be able to get away with just keeping them in sight. But for peace of mind, I would still stay within arm's reach as a babysitter. The cost of getting distracted or making a mistake is too high. And kids of all ages can get tired, swallow water and become panicked, or get stuck underwater.
The only floatation devices that are approved to keep children you're babysitting safe in the water are well-fitting lifejackets. Make sure that they have been approved by the Coast Guard or a similar trusted organization.
It's okay to let kids use water wings, pool noodles, and other floatation devices while they're under your direct supervision, but don't expect these toys to keep weak swimmers from drowning.
Only a life preserver or personal floatation device will keep a child upright or on their back with their face out of the water.
If you're watching a couple of 11 year olds, they might not be too keen on the idea of always having their babysitter within arm's reach.
As long as you can still give them your undivided attention, you can offer older kids a bit more freedom by letting them use the buddy system.
The buddy system involves having them pair up with another sibling or a friend, and both kids need to keep track of where their buddies are and make sure they're safe at all times.
Don't trust the buddy system as a substitute for adult supervision though.
If you're sitting at the side of the pool or on a towel at the beach, it can be tempting to reach for your phone. But this can be a distraction that makes you look away long enough for a child to slip below the water.
If you're playing a game, watching a video, or using an app on your phone it can be easy to get engrossed and lose track of time for several minutes. It only takes a few seconds for a child you're watching to disappear from your sight.
Just because you won't be using your phone while watching the kids swim doesn't mean you shouldn't have one nearby though. You need a phone charged and easy to access in case you need to call 911 in an emergency.
It's a call that you hope you'll never have to make. But if you do need to call for emergency services, what do you say?
It's important to stay calm and speak slowly. Try to get the message across clearly the first time, since repeating yourself will take up extra precious seconds.
Start by giving your address or other details about your location. It's important to know the address of the home you're babysitting at, or anywhere that you'll be taking the kids that you're watching. It's also a good idea to know the closest major intersection.
Give the operator a description of what has happened and what the problem is, such as if someone is unconscious or bleeding. Let them know what services you require (medical, fire, or police.)
Answer any other questions the operator has. Ask for an ETA (estimated time of arrival) if they don't give you one. This will let you know how many minutes it will be until help arrives.
Always stay on the line until the operator tells you that it's okay to hang up. They might walk you through instructions for performing first aid or CPR if needed.
If you aren't sure if a situation warrants calling 911, such as if a child hits their head and is bleeding, it's better to call. 911 shouldn't be used for non-emergency situations, but it's better safe than sorry if you aren't sure.
The combination of slippery conditions and a hard concrete surface around swimming pools can lead to all kinds of nasty slips and falls.
I recommend that all babysitters should have First Aid and CPR training regardless. But it's especially important if you're going to be around water since it's a more high-risk activity.
Having the right training will mean you'll know exactly what to do in most situations, ranging from scrapes and bruises to the child you're watching going unconscious.
Once you have First Aid and CPR training, don't forget to keep it up to date! Your certifications have an expiry date and you need to take a refresher course every few years.
Watching kids around the pool might seem obvious. But there are water hazards in the home where drowning can happen too. Be sure to take precautions around these as well.
Baby bath rings or bath seats. Don't leave babies unattended in the bath, even if they're in a bath seat. They can easily slip down below the surface of the water, or the seat could tip over and they could get trapped underneath.
Buckets and containers. As silly as it sounds, even a bucket of water can pose a drowning hazard for a toddler. They could fall head first into a bucket and not be able to get out. Even a drinks cooler filled with ice can be a risk.
Toilet bowls. Kids get curious about toilets. Especially when they are around potty training age. Keep the bathroom door closed and have the toilet cover down at all times. Especially if parents you're babysitting for don't have a safety latch on the toilet cover.
Bathtubs. A 6 year old can bathe themselves, but you should still be nearby to hear them if they call for help or swallow water. Kids under 5 should never be left alone in a bathtub, even while the bath is filling up.
If you are expected to bath kids before bed make sure you read our guide - 21 bathtime tips for babysitters and download our handy bathtime checklist.
Pet water bowls. A water source only needs to be large enough for a child to submerge their mouth and nose in. So even a dog's water bowl is a hazard, especially for toddlers who are still crawling.
Small child-sized pools don't seem like much of a risk to adults since they're so small. It seems like a child should be able to easily stand up or climb out if they get into trouble.
But it's easy for kids to get scared and not know what to do. They could easily slip and get a mouth full of water if you're not watching.
Unlike in-ground or above-ground pools, kiddie pools are only set up temporarily and don't have the legal requirements to be surrounded by fences or covers to keep kids safe.
If you let kids use a baby pool while you're babysitting them, make sure to completely drain it when they're done. Then bring it inside or put it away in a shed. If you leave it outside, it can accumulate rainwater which becomes a future drowning hazard.
Make sure to constantly watch kids even when they're just playing in shallow water. It only needs to be deep enough for them to put their face in for them to drown!
As a babysitter, you can't realistically keep an eye on more than two or three kids in the pool at once. Especially if you haven't had any kind of formal lifeguard training.
Don't allow kids to go in the pool if they have friends over. Especially for larger gatherings or parties. You simply can't keep track of 5 or more kids at once. With your attention split between watching so many kids, there's a much higher chance of missing something happening.
To keep kids safe, you should have some basic water rules in place ahead of time. Some include:
Secondary drowning is a condition that can happen up to 24 hours after a child inhales a large amount of water while swimming or bathing. Water left over in the lungs can cause breathing difficulty and can even be fatal.
If a child you're watching inhaled some water, watch out for symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or talking, or coughing later on.
If the child you're watching takes on some water, don't panic right away. I'm sure most of us have had a little scare while swimming where we took on a bit of water. In fact, 95% of kids who inhale water are fine. But it's still something to watch out for. You might want to let the parents know when they get home if you're worried so that they can continue to keep an eye on the child.
Taking kids swimming in lakes, ponds, and streams comes with some unique risks.
Often you can't see the bottom of a pond or lake. So you don't know how deep the water is, or what might be at the bottom.
Some ponds might hide sharp rocks, pieces of glass or metal, or other trash. So it's a good idea to have kids wear water shoes to protect their feet.
There could also be seaweed and grass that a child's legs could get tangled up in. Even strong swimmers can panic when they get caught, and struggling can only lead to getting more stuck.
Small bodies of water can also be breeding grounds for amoebas, E. Coli, and other types of bacteria and viruses. Larger lakes and ponds are safer, especially if they have a good flow of fresh water coming in.
In stagnant ponds and rivers, it's probably best for kids to keep their head above water and not allow it to enter their ears, nose, mouth, and eyes. Or just stay out of the water entirely if it hasn't been tested and approved by a local health unit or water authority for swimming in.
If you're taking kids on a boat, it's extra important to have them wear a life jacket and also wear one yourself. Even if you and the children are strong swimmers, the boat could tip over and you could get trapped underneath it.
Have kids wear plenty of sunscreen whenever they go outdoors, especially around the water. The surface of the water can reflect sunlight and intensify its effects.
It's also a good idea for younger kids to wear a hat, and even sunglasses.
If they aren't in the water, keep their skin covered up to limit exposure.
It seems counterintuitive since they're literally immersed in water. But kids still sweat and lose fluids even when they're playing or swimming in the water.
It's important to make sure they take breaks to drink lots of water so they don't get dehydrated. Especially if they're out of the water making sandcastles or doing some other fun activity.
Ask kids you're babysitting to get into the water at the pool or beach gradually to make sure that it's a comfortable temperature.
Start by just tipping their toes in and see how the water feels.
If kids get in the water and they're shivering, that could be a sign that the water is too cold to swim in for today. If the water is too cold, kids are at risk of having muscle cramps that will prevent them from swimming or floating to safety.
So it's probably a good idea to skip swimming on colder days.
If You Hear Thunder, Swim Time Is Over.
Get kids out of the pool or beach as soon as you can hear or see a storm approaching.
Lightning is electricity, and that's a bad thing to combine with a large body of water!
The idea of getting into the pool or going swimming at the beach at night seems like a cool idea. But it greatly limits your ability to supervise kids and make sure that they're safe.
Once the sun has set, rule out swimming as an activity.
Kids should get out of the pool every hour or so and take a break for 5 or 10 minutes. Even if they don't think they need to take a break!
Swimming and splashing around takes a lot of energy, so have snacks available for kids to refuel a bit on their breaks. Packing snacks for the beach in hot temperatures can be difficult. Pack things like dried fruit that will stay good in the heat and sun. Or bring a cooler to keep fruit and veggies cool.
You've probably heard an old saying that you shouldn't swim for 30 minutes or an hour after eating. The logic is that more blood is being used by your stomach and organs to digest food, so there's less in your arms and legs.
This has largely been debunked and is now considered a myth. Most doctors say that swimming right after eating is perfectly fine. Although I wouldn't recommend eating a heavy meal before swimming as kids are more likely to throw up. Especially if they swallow some water.
When you arrive at a pool, take note of where the drains and openings are so that you can pay special attention to them. Kids can sometimes find themselves getting stuck at these locations.
For kids with long hair (especially shoulder-length or longer), tie their hair up so that it won't accidentally get sucked into any of the water intakes around the edge of the pool.
It's easy for kids to get knocked over by big waves if you're at the beach. So it's best not to go to the beach on days when the water is rough.
Some beaches have flags or a chalkboard to indicate what water conditions are like, so take note if you see them.
In general, swimming is harder in the ocean than at the pool because of the water conditions. So it's extra important to stay close to kids you're babysitting and make sure they stay safe.
Be aware of riptides and undertow as well. These water currents can quickly pull a child far out away from shore and out of your reach. Or suck a child under the surface and pin them to the ocean floor.
Keep kids in shallow water to minimize the risk of encountering these currents. It's a good idea to set a specific depth they're allowed to go up to, such as up to their waist, to avoid them swimming out too far.
If you're in the ocean, there is wildlife to worry about as well. You probably don't need to worry about encountering sharks while you're babysitting. But you should watch out for jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-wars which can be several feet long and deliver a nasty sting.
Taking kids to a water park can be a fun day out while babysitting. There's tons of exciting activities for kids to do. However, there are also a lot of water-related risks too.
If the kids you're babysitting aren't strong swimmers, it's best to have them wear a lifejacket.
Make sure kids are old or tall enough to go on each ride. And make sure there is a lifeguard on duty at each ride or attraction that children want to go on.
Drowning isn't the only water hazard that you need to worry about.
Children have thinner skin than adults, so their skin can be burned more easily. A few seconds of scalding hot water is enough to give a child a third degree burn.
Before putting a child in a bath, test the water with your wrist to make sure the water isn't too hot.
Letting young kids in a hot tub or jacuzzi isn't a good idea either. The water is often too warm and they can overheat in just a few minutes.
Of course drowning is a concern when babysitting infants. But there are other considerations when watching babies around water.
Infants are especially vulnerable to diseases that are able to spread through water.
Not only are babies susceptible to disease themselves. But leaky diapers can also spread a parasite called cryptosporidium to other swimmers. This parasite can cause vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, nausea, and weight loss.
So for the health of the baby you're watching and also others, it's best to keep babies out of public pools until after they are potty trained. Particularly if the baby has diarrhea or some other kind of stomach-related illness.
If you need to take a baby into a pool, make sure to use waterproof diapers and change the diapers in the changeroom more often than normal. Be sure to wash the baby off well after each changing as well.
You should offer children you're babysitting frequent bathroom breaks even if they're already potty trained.
After taking a baby swimming in a pool, you should wash their bodies and hair with a mild shampoo and soap to remove chlorine and other pool chemicals. Be sure to carefully dry their ear with a cotton ball or towel to prevent them from developing swimmer's ear as well.
Babies shouldn't go swimming in water temperatures below 29 degrees C (85 degrees F.) Their tiny bodies simply lose heat too quickly and they're at risk of hypothermia.
If you're swimming with a baby and their lips turn blue or they start shivering, you should remove them from the water immediately. Dry them off and wrap them in a towel or warm clothing.
Be sure to keep the deck around the pool clear of toys or other objects that can be a tripping hazard. Get kids to put away extra toys when they're done using them and only have a few toys out at any given time.
Tripping around the pool could cause children you're babysitting to fall into the pool, and it's easy to chip a tooth if they fall on the hard surface.
It can get wet and slippery around the edges of a pool. But try your best to squeegee or mop up any big puddles that develop which can add an additional slipping or trip hazard.
When you're done using a family pool in a backyard, make sure to close the gate and lock it if possible to prevent kids from getting back inside of the pool area.
When it comes to water and children you can never be too careful.
As a babysitter, water safety should be a serious concern but it can also be easy when you have proper safety training and you follow our tips.
Enjoy your fun in the sun!
Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.
Published: 7 March 2019
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