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Floaties are the Devil (and 9 More Critical Safety Tips Lifeguards Wish All Parents Knew)

pool safety

It’s four in the afternoon, and quieting down at the pool I’m currently guarding. Well, I was guarding, but at the moment I’m eating lunch while two other guards watch the pools.

I’m looking out through our large window when I see it: a limp child’s body being scooped out of the water by a bystander. My heart drops, as does my salad. I jump out of the guard station and fly down the ramp as the boy comes to, and I get to him in time for him to sit up and puke on me. I look to the bystander, (who it turns out is an off-duty cop) and she says words that haunt me forever, “It happened in an instant. Someone splashed water in his mouth when he came up for air, and down he went.” I looked at the boy, no older than five. This is the same child I kicked out of the pool area four times for not having an adult with him, and he was just rescued from the deep end of the pool by a quick-thinking adult. His eleven year old sister stood next to me tearful, wet, and shaking. His parents dropped them both at a birthday party and left, leaving his safety in the hands of his big sister. Together, we went into the guard station where I called the local ambulance, worried he had residual water in his lungs. Then I spent the next thirty minutes trying to find his parents. 

“It happened in an instant.”

As a former lifeguard, competitive swimmer, and certified Water Safety Instructor, you could say that my youth revolved around our community watering holes. As a lifeguard, I rescued countless children (and a couple adults) from near drowning situations most of which could have been avoided by an on-top-of-it parent. Now as a mom, I see the pool through a new lens and quite frankly, I’m frustrated that we don’t do a better job teaching parents about pool safety. I believe that information is power so here is:

10 safety tips that, yes, I too practice with all three of my kids every time we go to the pool:

Exposure is everything:

Swim lessons are great! But if your child is under three, taking them to the pool and exposing them to fun, monitored, safe water play on a consistent basis is even more important. I’m a firm believer that every kid and parent should be happy and confident swimmers: being confident in the pool makes summer so fun! But anyone can drown, even great swimmers. In fact, I’ve had three close calls myself, one at a pool, one at an ocean, and one at our river. So even if your child is a seasoned swimmer, you should still be mindful of the following:

Floaties are literally the worst:

My lifeguard training instructor said it best: most floaties (especially those found on end caps at big box stores) help your child float upside down as well as right side up. On top of that, they can pop. Oh and they lead to a false sense of security for the parent. Oh and they keep kids ignorant to how breath-holding and flotation actually works. In sum, I hate them. Please don’t use them! And yes, I’m including puddle jumpers because so many use them improperly.

If you want to use fun floaties, make sure your kids understand how to hold their breath, and float on their own. And watch out for donut shaped floaties, because kids can sometimes lose their grip on the inside and begin drowning without anyone realizing it (been there, rescued them).

If you really need a solid flotation device because you have a couple littles please buy a life vest that is coast guard certified and has a strap that goes between the legs.  Bottom line: don’t trust floaties to “watch” your kids for you.

Support Pool Safety

Reading the pool/beach rules to your kids is a must. Take it a step further and enforce the rules with your own kids. Lifeguards are watching upwards of 50-75 people individually, and a heckuvah lot more on hot days. They are required to not only scan the pool, but also the walking paths, picnic spots, and sunbathing areas outside of the pool. They are tested to watch out for drownings yes, but also bee stings, a person having heat stroke, or someone experiencing a seizure on a lounge chair 50 yards away. If the lifeguard is also required to reiterate written rules to your kids (like, “please don’t do back-flips off the side”) their attention is diverted. Bottom line: By policing your own kid’s behavior you make the pool safer for everyone.

Know How to Identify Unsafe Lifeguards:

Sorry to say, not every lifeguard is created equal. I’ve seen several private clubs around town with lifeguards using unsafe guarding practices. Not only is this a huge liability for the pool and club, but it sets up every guest with a false sense of security. I can usually assess how good a lifeguard is within five minutes at any pool, and you can too:

A good lifeguard:

  • is standing by the pool or rotating through standing and sitting positions around the pool with other guards,
  • is constantly scanning the area in front of them,
  • can easily see the whole area from where they are stationed,
  • is offered regular breaks by management so they can hydrate, suncreen, and nourish their bodies,
  • takes an active role in rule enforcement.

They should not be:

  • lounging on chairs with their legs up,
  • standing in a spot that obscures their line of sight,
  • working for hours with no break,
  • getting caught up in conversations where their attention is diverted from the pool,
  • turning their back to the pool/zone they are watching. 

Bottom line: Lifeguarding is a serious job and requires devoted individuals who take their role seriously.

Stay within arms reach of non-swimmers:

Strong swimmers can make it across the pool using a stroke other than doggy paddle, without touching the ground or taking a break. If your child cannot do this, you will need to be within arms reach at all times, even if they can stand. That means at a minimum you should be sitting on the edge with your feet in the pool, able to grab them if they slip under. Your phone needs to be away. Any conversations should be happening with your child in plain view. I mean it. I rescued countless children who were literally five feet from their parents because someone got caught up in a conversation and their child slipped on the pool bottom.

Bottom line: A lot of drownings occur when an unsafe guard combines with an unaware parent.

Stay at the pool and stay sober:

When accidents happen, nothing is worse than feeling like your head is too fuzzy to make wise decisions. I’ve also had to rescue a few drunk adults on river float trips who didn’t realize they were drifting into unsafe waters. If you are craving that margarita or corona, make sure you’re also drinking a lot of water. Also, stay poolside! Your older children cannot be held responsible for your younger ones, unless they are teens and competent swimmers themselves. 

Bottom Line: The pool is not an adult resort: it’s for family time. 

Defend Against Heat Exhaustion and Sun Stroke

Our UV index on warm days is regularly in the very high to high range (which means you run the risk of being sunburned within 30 minutes). Buy great sunscreen, wide brimmed hats, sunglasses, and bring big jugs of water. If pools shut down for adult swim breaks, that is a great time to make sure everyone is hydrating and re-applying sunscreen, although we recommend you encourage reapplication every 30 minutes. (And watch out for tricky sunscreen with high SPF, it may not be as safe as it claims to be).

Bottom Line: Check the UV index before you leave and protect your kids from too much sun.

Know the signs for hypothermia too:

Because we have foggy summer days, I often saw littles in my swim lessons with symptoms of being too cold. Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can make heat. Even the warmest local pool is still 10-20 degrees below body temperature, and that can be a lot for a little bug with little to no body fat. Take regular breaks on cooler days, and allow them to warm up in the shower if necessary. If you see your child getting blue chattering lips, take them out and wrap them up in a warm towel. Other signs of hypothermia:

  • Shivering
  • Slurred speech or mumbling
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clumsiness or lack of coordination
  • Drowsiness or very low energy
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Bright red, cold skin (in infants)

Bottom Line: Our summers are foggy, be wary of blue lips!

Drowning is SILENT:

Your child will be so busy trying to get oxygen, they won’t be yelling for help. They will also be busy grabbing the water, and not usually have the ability to take their hands out of the water to splash. It may even look like they are simply bobbing in the water playfully. I have completed a fair number of drowning rescues and every time, no one around the victim even realizes what is happening. So if in doubt, pull them out. 

Bottom Line: Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

Learn to identify a double-drowning situation:

Double drowning can look like two people bobbing up and down, again, playfully. But in actuality, one person is likely drowning, and they’ve grabbed a friend to help them and they are now drowning their friend. It’s not their fault, their brain is in survival mode. This very situation happened to my 10 year old daughter last year at a sleep away camp. It was terrifying for her and has made her reluctant to swim without me (which says a lot as she’s a former club swimmer). 

Bottom Line: Be on the lookout for random pool depth changes, and know how well your kids (and their friends) can swim.

In all likelihood, your biggest concerns at the pool will be sunburns and bee stings. But consider this information like car insurance, you have it if you ever need it. Happy swimming!

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12 Responses to Floaties are the Devil (and 9 More Critical Safety Tips Lifeguards Wish All Parents Knew)

  1. Rebecca L. June 16, 2018 at 7:14 pm #

    So helpful! My husband was just talking about buying the kids puddle jumpers for our upcoming vacation, and I was like, “Hmm, I’m pretty sure Randi wrote a post about this.”

  2. Allison P. June 18, 2018 at 9:29 am #

    Such helpful information! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.

  3. Sarah June 22, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

    Puddle jumpers are coast guard certified

    • Randi Cornwall
      Randi Cornwall June 22, 2018 at 5:09 pm #

      Hi Sarah, yes they are! I mentioned that I don’t like them because they are often worn improperly, parents often put them on kids who don’t meet the size requrements, and kids develop a false sense of security, as with all floaties. I’ve noticed that children who wear the full lifejacket seem to be more aware that the life jacket is doing the floating for them, which is why I listed them as a preference. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Paul G. June 22, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

    Almost lost my sister to a floatie that turned upside down. Don’t trust them. Keep your eyes on them for every second in or around the water.

    • Randi Cornwall
      Randi Cornwall June 22, 2018 at 5:10 pm #

      Thank you for your comment Paul, and I am so sorry your sister had that scary experience. Yes, floaties CAN be fun, but they should only be used in conjunction with strict attention by the parents.

  5. Desi June 23, 2018 at 11:10 am #

    So even with a 21 month old you would suggest no floatie and arms reach supervision and many opportunities to water to gain experience? In shallow areas?

    • Randi Cornwall
      Randi Cornwall June 23, 2018 at 11:28 am #

      Hi Desi! Yes! I strongly recommend letting them walk around in shallow areas with you by their side. And if you want to go play in deeper spots, take them in your arms. You can play motor boat, where their kicks are the “motor”, you can play blowing bubbles, breatholding, sing “old Macdonald had a pool” etc. I have a four year old right now and she’s either within arms reach in the one foot baby pool, or I take her to the 3 foot section and we practice swimming skills while I hold her. (She’s timid though, by this age her sisters were swimming from the wall to me and back.)

  6. Desi June 23, 2018 at 11:38 am #

    Okay! Thanks!

  7. Kevin June 28, 2018 at 10:21 am #

    I dont understand the attack on puddle jumpers. I get the arm floaties being dangerous, but puddle jumpers just like every life jacket it has to be used properly. Any flotation device can be used inproperly.

    • Randi Cornwall
      Randi Cornwall June 30, 2018 at 8:19 pm #

      I agree with you that most flotation devices can be used improperly, but I’ve noticed a higher incidence of parents using puddle jumpers to “watch” their kids, than almost any other flotation, and a lot of the time I see kids that are too small to be in them. If you click on the “pink” writing where I talk about puddle jumpers, it links to a better explanation as to my concerns with them. As I shared in the article, if you want to use them, fine, but stay with your kids and make sure they know how to swim without them.

  8. Erika July 18, 2018 at 5:47 am #

    Wow is all I can say! Thank you for these tips. Great article, I was engaged the whole time. Thank you again.

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