Water safety and drowning prevention

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Learn how to keep children safe in or around water.

Key points

  • Drowning can occur in as little as 20 seconds.
  • Children are at risk of drowning when swimming, boating or bathing in the bathtub.
  • Always supervise children near any water and keep young children within arm's reach.
  • Lifejackets and personal flotation devices must meet safety standards and be properly fitted.

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Where can drowning happen?

Drowning can happen in as little as 20 seconds, even in shallow water that is only 2.5 cm deep. Most drowning cases happen in backyard pools, bathtubs and inflatable pools. Natural bodies of water, toilets and drainage sites are other places where drowning can occur. Always supervise children near any water and keep young children within arm's reach and empty water containers such as bathtubs, buckets, pails and toddler pools.

Swimming safety

Backyard swimming pools

If you have a backyard swimming pool, check to make sure that it follows local by-laws. Make sure a fence surrounds the pool on all sides. The pool should be completely fenced-in if a child could otherwise exit the house through sliding doors and directly enter the pool unsupervised.

A pool fence should be 1.2 metres (4 feet) high and have a self-latching gate. The latch should be out of your child's reach so they cannot open it on their own.

Keep toys and furniture away from the pool fence to prevent children from climbing over it to get into the pool. If any door in the house leads directly to the pool, it should close by itself and have a lock that a child cannot reach and open. Pools and hot tubs should always have a safety cover over them when not in use. Hot tub covers should have a locking mechanism or the hot tube should be in an area that is enclosed and locked.

Other pool safety tips

  • Always have an adult watching children in the pool. This adult should know basic life-saving skills and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for a baby and a child.
  • Keep life-saving equipment, such as a safety ring with a rope, near the pool.
  • Enrol children in swimming and water safety lessons by the time they are age four. Water safety programs for adults and younger children are also a good idea.
  • Even if your child has taken swimming lessons, have an adult watch them closely in and around water. Young children should always be within arm's reach.
  • 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.
  • Always check the pool first if a child is missing.
  • Keep toddler pools empty when not in use.

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 to always tell an adult before they go swimming. Young children should always be supervised when playing in or around water.
  • Put children on a 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.

Lifejackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs)

Lifejackets and PFDs are safety devices are slightly different from one another. Lifejackets will keep a person upright and face-up. A PFD, while lighter and less bulky, will not necessarily turn a person face up. Children under the age of three or children who cannot swim should wear a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) in or around water. Make sure that your child’s PFD or lifejacket meets current safety standards. In Canada, PFDs are only available for children weighing at least 9 kg (20 lbs). There are no approved infant-sized lifejackets or PFDs for children under 9 kg that meet Canadian safety standards.

Your child’s lifejacket or PFD should:

  • be chosen according to your child's size and weight
  • be properly fitted
  • have a large collar to keep their head up in the water
  • have a handle on the collar to lift them
  • have a safety strap so the PFD does not slide up over their head
  • be equipped with a whistle
  • have reflective tape or a bright colour
  • have no rips or damage

Inflatable toys, bathing suits with sewn-in flotation devices and water wings are not considered safety devices.

Boating safety

By law, boaters must have lifejackets or PFDs for each person aboard the boat. No matter which option you choose, it must be the right size, fit properly and be in good condition. If you want your child to wear a life jacket or PFD, set a good example and do the same.

Other boating safety 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.
  • Remind children to keep their arms, legs and head inside the boat at all times.
  • At least one adult should be able to always see the child to make sure the child does not fall into the water. Even if the water is shallow, it might be in a rocky area.
  • If sleeping on the boat, make sure young children cannot open a door or window and get outside unsupervised.

Bath time

Drowning can even happen in a bathtub. This is because very young children do not have the motor skills to lift their heads above water or get themselves out of the water if they are in danger. Small children can even drown in water that is just a few centimetres deep.

Once an infant is in the tub, pay full attention to them. Do not turn your back or rely on another child to watch them.

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

Many parents 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 until they can sit up unassisted. Although a bath seat can be convenient, it is not a safety device. Never leave an infant unattended while they are placed in one.

Whether or not you use a bath seat, children in the tub should be within arm's reach at all times and should not be left alone even for a second.

Last updated: November 28th 2023