It’s family pool time! Everyone jumps in for some fun to cool off from the heat. You put your toddler in a puddle jumper flotation device and encourage him to jump in from the side of the pool. Toys and floats all around, his older sisters swimming nearby. Everyone is having so much fun. Your children feel safe and happy. You even enrolled your toddler in parent child swim lessons earlier that year so he would be more comfortable in the water. Sounds perfect, right? Harmless.... I thought so, too.
July 2016, I lost my 18-month-old son to drowning in our backyard pool. One minute, he was inside playing with his sisters. The next, he was floating face down in the pool. Looking back on it, we had made a lot of mistakes. I didn’t have enough barriers between my son and the pool, we should have had a pool fence, a net, an alarm... something that would have stopped him from making it the pool alone. But, we also made mistakes that most parents make everyday and consider harmless.
Now, I considered myself a very safe, protective mother. I was a mom of three and worked full time in a busy Emergency Room as a Registered Nurse. If something was recommended as safe for my children, I did it! Our stairs- gated top and bottom, outlets- covered, car seats, etc. In fact, my 10-year-old was still sitting in a booster seat against her will.
We moved to the Houston area from Colorado in 2013 and we wanted a house with a pool. Having a pool was a fun and new experience for us. We found a perfect house for our family of 4 plus 2 dogs. Since my husband and I both work full time jobs, we installed a dog door to avoid accidents in the home.
December 2014, we had our son Jackson. We recognized the dog door as a risk for him to get outside, even though he never really paid attention to it. We had a lock for the dog door and kept it locked while we were home. When we would leave for work or extended periods of time, we would open it.
July 9, 2016, I unlocked the dog door. We were leaving the house for about an hour, and the dogs might need to go outside. When we all returned home I asked my husband to watch the kids for a few minutes. He thought Jackson went upstairs with his sisters to play, so he heated up some food.
A few minutes went by and I came out of the bedroom, thinking it was too quiet. I asked my husband where Jackson was, and he said he was upstairs. No problem, he plays with his older sisters all the time. But it didn’t feel right. He wasn’t up there. That is when I remembered that I had forgot to relock the dog door. The dog door that lead straight outside to our backyard, straight to our pool.
The obvious dangers were the dog door, and the lack of a door alarm, pool alarm, or fence around the pool…. But I want to discuss problems that were not so obvious: water acclimation swimming lessons and puddle jumper floatation devices.
Our family loves to swim, some of our best memories are in our pool. I wanted Jackson to be apart of those memories and have a fun summer of swimming, so I signed him up for parent-child swimming lessons, also known as a water acclimation class.
My goal with these lessons was to help Jackson become comfortable in the water. We had so much fun to singing songs, dancing the hokey-pokey, and playing with balls and bubbles in the water with other toddlers. I looked forward to them and spending quality time with my son. We completed several months of lessons in preparation for summer.
But these lessons didn’t teach him any safety for the water. In fact, these classes encouraged him to feel safe and comfortable in the water without teaching him how to respect it. They made him fearless. They reinforced the water as a place for him to play and we encouraged it at home. He was too young to understand the risks. So, why wouldn’t he jump in the pool that evening after getting through the dog door?
Jackson also loved his puddle jumper. When I would ask him if he wanted to swim, he would grab it and try to put it on. He knew that’s how we did it; that’s how we swam at home. Typically I sat at the edge of the pool and let the kids play. Don’t get me wrong, I would jump in, too, and play with them. I never took my eyes off them, but I did use the pool as a “babysitter” of sorts.
Little did I know that his puddle jumper was horribly detrimental. These flotation devices train your child to float in a vertical position. In a position of drowning. They also give the child a false sense of security and confidence in the pool. The problem is not necessarily when they are wearing it, but when they make it to the pool without it. When children who are used to wearing these devices do not have them on, they attempt to float in the same vertical position, which is impossible to do. They are unable to get their head above water to breathe. If left unnoticed, they could drown in as little as 30 seconds.
Teaching your child to roll to a float on their back is the most basic and important thing for children to learn how to do. This will save their life if they make it to water unnoticed. If my son could have gotten to a float on his own, I know it would have saved his life.
Leaving toys around the pool can also be very dangerous. We would swim nearly every day, so I wasn’t so strict that my children clean up their toys. Having toys in the pool that evening may have also played a role in him drowning. Maybe he was reaching for toy and fell in? I’ll never know.
We had no idea that swimming lessons and the over use of flotation devices could be detrimental to our son. It seemed like everyone around us did the same, why would we question it?!
Now, I spend much of my time educating other parents to prevent them from making the same mistakes. Here are my tips:
· Swim lessons- Swim lessons should be survival based with an emphasis on self-rescue. The water is a deadly place, in fact, it’s more dangerous to have a pool in your backyard than a loaded gun in your home. We need to stop teaching our children that the water is a fun, safe place. It’s not! They need to be equipped with the skills that can save them if they make it to a pool, or any open body of water for that fact. They need to be able to get a floating position, even if they are fully dressed.
· Puddle jumpers and other floats- These are dangerous because young children cannot comprehend that they need these to stay afloat in the water. It gives them a false sense of confidence. They can also give parents a false sense of security that they are safe in the water. Floatation devices can slide off the child or they can fall out of them without anybody noticing. Drowning is quick and quiet; these children will not splash and cry that they are in danger. Puddle Jumper type flotation devices inadvertently train them to float in a vertical position, which is not life sustaining without the device.
· Pool toys- clean them up when not swimming, they can entice your child to go near the water.
· Have a secure door- This includes no dog doors. We had one with a lock, and due to human error, it still failed us.
· Pool fence with self closing and latching gate- this is the most effective way to keep your child from gaining unsupervised access to the pool. Never prop the door open. Do not leave furniture nearby they can use to climb the fence.
· Constant Supervision- if you have a pool, you need to have constant supervision of your child, you cannot assume they are somewhere safe. If they go missing, check the pool first.
· Learn CPR- You never want to have to use it on your own child, but it is better to be prepared. My quick response to CPR that evening might have saved my son’s organs so that he was able to donate his heart, kidneys and liver to people in need.
This video shows a home video taken two days before my son's fatal drowning accident. It may look like a fun, innocent home video of a family having fun in the pool together, but can you spot the hidden dangers??? Please do not make the same mistakes we did. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children aged 1-4. We need to do better for our children.