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Water Safety

Children under five years of age are most at risk for drownings

Children under five are more likely to drown or nearly drown than any other age group. Children aged five to nine are also at high risk for drowning.

boy in swimming pool with father

Never leave children unattended near water

Always supervise your child when he or she is in or near water. Children can drown in the time it takes to answer a phone.

Stay close enough to touch your child when in the bathtub, home swimming pool, public pool, or lake. Supervision is the best way to prevent drowning.

The most common situations for drowning are swimming, boating, and in the bathtub.


Backyard swimming pools

Parents should make sure there is a fence that surrounds the backyard swimming pool on all sides. The fence needs to be 1.2 metres (4 feet) high and have a self-latching gate. Check to make sure that your pool follows local by-laws for backyard swimming pools.

Some people have a fence on three sides and consider the house to be the fourth side. But in this case, you are protecting the other kids and not your own.  Since a child can exit the house through sliding doors and directly enter the pool unsupervised, the pool should be completely fenced in. If any door in the house leads directly to the pool, make sure that door closes by itself and has a lock that a child cannot reach and open.

Keep these pool safety tips in mind:

  • Always have an adult watching children in the pool. It is best that this adult knows cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and lifesaving techniques.
  • Enroll children in swimming and water safety lessons by the time they are 4 years old. Water safety programs for adults and younger children are also a good idea.
  • Taking swimming lessons does not ensure that a child will not drown. You still need to watch your child closely in and around water.
  • Children can drown in seconds; do not turn away to answer the phone or focus on something else. Do not assume that a child in trouble will be able to make noise to alert you.
  • Make sure lifesaving and first aid equipment is close to the pool. Keep emergency phone numbers nearby.
  • Children under the age of 3 or children who cannot swim must wear personal flotation devices (PFDs). Be sure that the PFD is an approved device and that all parts of the PFD are in good condition. Users of inflatable PFDs should follow manufacturer’s instructions so they can help their children use them correctly. Remember that air-filled toys, water wings, and air mattresses are not a substitute for a PFD.
  • Always check the pool first if a child is missing.

Lakes and rivers

Because lakes and rivers are not fenced in, it is even more important to watch children closely when at the cottage or the beach. Remember these safety tips:

  • Give your children your full attention. Make sure they know they must always tell an adult before they go swimming.
  • Children under the age of 3 or children who cannot swim should always be wearing a PFD in or around water.
  • Put children on the buddy system so that if one is in trouble, the other can call for help.
  • Make sure children swim close to shore. They should be able to see you at all times.
  • Teach young children how to swim or play within arm's reach.
  • Swim at supervised waterfronts and beaches.
  • Choose a safe place to swim. Check for hazards on the beach and in the water, including water pollution levels.
  • Watch for boats and jet skis while swimming.


By law, boaters must have life jackets or personal floatation devices (PFDs) for each person aboard the boat. They must be the right size, though they do not have to be worn. Pay special attention to your children’s PFDs, which should be chosen by size and weight, and have collars to keep heads up in the water, a handle on the collar to lift them, and a safety strap so the PFD does not slide up over their head. Test the PFD first in a pool to make sure it works and fits properly.

Here are some boating tips:

  • Do not rock the boat. Move slowly when you enter the boat because it could tip over, or tip you out, if you are not careful.
  • Children should always wear a PFD when boating.
  • Children should keep their arms, legs, and head inside the boat at all times.
  • At least one adult should be able to see the child at all times to make sure the child does not fall into the water, which may be too deep or rocky.
  • If sleeping on board the boat, make sure young children cannot open a door or window and get outside unsupervised.


At home, drowning in the bathtub is not uncommon. Very young children do not have the motor skills to lift their heads above water or get themselves out of the water.  Small children can drown in water that is just two inches deep. Parents should not turn their backs or rely on a sibling to watch an infant.

Lock the door to the bathroom to prevent a child from getting into dangerous situations in the bathroom. They may attempt to run a bath on their own in the same way they have seen a parent do it.

Many parents like to use bathing aids such as bath seats or rings to free up their hands to wash their baby. These plastic seats use suction cups to attach to the bottom of the tub, and are designed to secure an infant who is about seven months of age which is around the time the child can sit upright unassisted.

Safe Kids Canada advises against using bath seats because babies may slide out of the seats or the suction cups can come loose and the baby may topple over. The seats also give parents a false sense of security and they may leave the child unattended momentarily. Children in the tub should be within arm’s reach at all times and should not be left alone even for a second.

Bathtubs are not the only water-based hazard in the home. Buckets of water, wading pools, and washing machines can put curious toddlers at risk of drowning also. Drain wading pools and buckets after use.

Key Points

  • Children under five are most at risk for drowning.
  • Always supervise children near any water.
  • Most accidents happen when swimming, boating or in the bathtub.

Andrew James, MBChB, MBI, FRACP, FRCPC



Canadian Institute for Health Information: www.cihi.orgCanadian Red Cross:

Safe Kids Canada:

Health Canada: Healthy Living — Sports and Sun:

Public Health Agency of Canada: Water Safety: