When the Party's in the Pool

Pool parties are a great way for kids to have fun while beating the heat. Yet in California, child drownings in backyard pools each year tragically remind us of the potential dangers these parties entail. Consider these statistics:

  • Nationwide, more than 350 children under age 5 drown annually in residential pools, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. 
  • Drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death among children under 5 in California and the second leading cause for ages 5 to 9, according to the California Department of Developmental Services. Approximately 50 kids ages 1 to 5 drown each year, half of those in backyard pools. From 1999-2008, 35 children under 5 drowned in the seven Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and San Mateo. 
  • A child submerged in water can lose consciousness in less than two minutes. Irreversible brain damage can occur within four to six minutes, according to the National Injury Prevention Foundation. 
  • For children ages 5 to 9, more than 25 percent of drownings take place even when the child has had swimming lessons, the National Institutes of Health report. Lessons reduce, but don’t stop, drownings.

If you’re planning a pool party this summer, or if your child is invited to one, read on for tips on how to keep everyone safe. 


Setting the Ground Rules

Kids love the water, but often don’t think about the consequences of their actions in or around the pool. Telling them which behaviors are forbidden before they jump in can prevent accidents. 

"Before we even open the gate, we say no running and wait for an adult," says Ann-Marie Haun of San Jose, who hosts pool parties for her three children, who are all under 6.  Her pool rules include no running on the deck, no grabbing onto anyone else in the pool and no jumping from the diving board until the child ahead of you has jumped and reached the side. Enforcing the rules is as important as setting them, says Haun, whose family owns Pinnacle Pool Care in San Jose. "If children are caught breaking the rules, they are given a warning," she says. "If they do it again, they have to get out of the water and sit on a timeout."



Experts agree that constant adult supervision is the key to a safe pool party. "A momentary lapse of supervision is the main factor of how, when and why kids drown," says Nadina Riggsbee, president of the Drowning Prevention Foundation of Benicia. "The bottom line is, if you are going to have a gathering, you need to have a qualified adult sit by the water, never leaving, until they have a replacement. That is the best and only answer."

Most drowning prevention advocates recommend assigning supervisors to 15- or 20-minute intervals. Because drowning happens silently, host parents who are busy serving food, organizing games or socializing with guests cannot responsibly watch the pool. Adults who are strong swimmers and proficient in CPR, and who can maintain complete focus on the pool – without cell phone calls, side conversations, drinking or other distractions – should be assigned instead. That holds true whether children are playing in deep or shallow water, and regardless of children’s ages or swimming abilities. 

Some parents aim for one-on-one supervision. Since the kids at their pool parties typically are young, the Haun family makes sure a parent or designated adult stays with each child in the water. If the adult gets out, he needs to assign someone else or take the child with him.

Their stance is based partly on a scary experience in which a relative who was watching their child at a gathering got out of the pool, assuming the other adults noticed it. The child couldn’t swim independently, says Haun, and "we panicked."

They found him playing on the steps but "he could have slippd under without anyone noticing," she says. "With all of the chaos at parties, it is easy to see how a child could drown, even with a group of adults standing around." 

Some local parents hire lifeguards to ensure proper supervision, a practice recommended by the American Red Cross. Lifeguards should have appropriate certification through an accredited water safety organization and have current training in CPR and first aid, according to Eugene Bivol, a water safety instructor with the American Red Cross. While there are no precise guidelines for the number of guests who can safely be in the pool, the more kids in the water, the more lifeguards or adult supervisors are needed. 

Maintain pool supervision for as long as kids have access to the pool area. When the swimming is over, account for each child and always check the water first if a child is missing. Lock the pool fence and move activities away from the pool.

"You don’t have to be swimming for an accident to happen, because kids are attracted to the water," says the Drowning Prevention Foundation’s Riggsbee. "They will keep going to the water until they get to it, so as long as there is water, someone has to be watching it." 


Toys and Games

Swimming games and toys keep the excitement going, but should be safe and suited to kids’ swimming levels. Kids at the Hauns’ pool love to pile on rafts, but they’re not allowed to flip them over other swimmers. (Water wings, noodles and rafts are toys and shouldn’t be used instead of life jackets, experts warn.)

Younger kids love to race to collect floating balls, while older kids can gather sunken coins. Another fun game is "Colors," where each child waits at the pool side until he hears the color that he has silently chosen called out by the child who is "it." He then tries to reach the other side before being tagged. Games like "Marco Polo" and water tag work well for kids who can stand safely in the pool.

Diving, breath-holding contests, roughhousing and throwing kids in the pool should not be included, nor should games that require many floating devices that can obstruct the view of the pool.


Safety Equipment

Having the right safety equipment on hand saves critical minutes if a child becomes submerged. The American Red Cross recommends keeping poles, ropes and personal flotation devices poolside. A cordless phone (not a cell phone that can lose reception) with programmed emergency numbers should be within reach of adults watching the pool.

If a child begins to drown, act fast. One adult should call 911, while another pulls the child out of the water and begins CPR if necessary. Time saved before paramedics arrive can mean the difference between life and death.

Pool owners with small children should install five-foot or higher fencing on all four sides with self-closing and -locking gates, Riggsbee’s organization states.

Another key safety device is an anti-entrapment drain cover. Since 1987, nearly 150 children have drowned when their hair or body parts became trapped in the powerful suction of pool and spa drains. While a new federal law requires that all public pools install safety drain covers and back-up devices that reduce suction, the Pool Safety Council recommends that residential pool owners do so as well.

Children should be instructed to stay away from drains and to tie back long hair to prevent entanglement. Supervising adults should know how to shut off the drain system if a child gets caught.


Learn to Swim

Teaching kids to swim and to make good water judgments, like never swimming alone, goes a long way toward keeping them safe in any body of water. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed its recommendation that children wait until age 4 to begin formal swim lessons. The pediatricians previously believed that younger children weren’t developmentally ready to learn real life-saving skills. Swimming lessons might even create a false sense of security for their parents, they said. But, new research indicates that kids who take lessons from age 1 to 4 do indeed learn techniques that can prevent drowning. 

So, consider signing up for swimming class before the next pool party. Playing it safe will ensure that this summer’s pool parties are a cool experience for everyone.


Lisa Armony is a freelance writer and a mom. Former Bay Area Parent associate editor Angela Geiser contributed to this report.




Questions to ask when your child is invited to a pool party:

  • What are the ground rules around the pool? Go over these with your child before he enters the water.  


  • What supervision will be provided? Ask whether there will be a lifeguard or whether qualified adults will watch the pool.


  • Are all pool watchers skilled in CPR and rescue techniques?


  • What activities will take place in the pool? Be sure your child won’t be asked to do things beyond his swimming level.


  • Where will the children be after they finish swimming? The pool area should be locked when kids are out of the pool.