Mario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
Welcome to another season of safe swimming and fun at A Water-Full Life! This is my third year writing water safety advice and tips for parents at Swimways.com. I’m really looking forward to this year because we’ve decided to change direction and head to the beach and beyond.
We know you won’t only be in the back yard pool and wanted to give you safety tips for all destinations. I’ll give you my best safety tips for trips to the beach; what to watch for in the surf and the sand. I’ll give you a checklist and good advice on how to take your family on boating adventures while on vacation. You’ll get my thoughts on parasailing, life jacket use, fishing trips, sun safety, and how to avoid and handle jelly fish and other things that sting. We’re even going to cover cruise ships and help you stay safe at sea.
We know that fun in the water is more than just backyard pools and this year we are going to help you and your family be safe no matter where you are this summer. And something else is new for this year’s blog – video! I’ll take you to the beach to show you a rip current develop; we’ll go on a charter boat and show you what you should know about those adventures; you’ll see me find out just how deep the water is even when it looks shallow!
So stay tuned right here to the Water-Full Life Blog. You’ll have fun and be safe wherever the water takes you.
Just because the water looks blue and clear doesn’t mean it’s in the best shape for a swim. There are water conditions besides blue and clear that can have a real effect on the healthy use of the water. Here’s what you need to know to make sure your pool water is at its best for all your little swimmers.
pH Balance and Disinfectants
pH is an indicator of water balance, which is an indicator of pool health. 7.2 to 7.8 is the safe range, but when bringing your kids in the water, especially infants and toddlers, you want the water to be ideal. The National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) recommends 7.4 to 7.6 to keep eye irritation at a minimum. If your child’s eyes are stinging, they won’t be having fun and that makes learning much harder. With pH test strips, you can easily check your pool before each swim to make sure levels are optimal. The pH level also affects how well your disinfectant does its job of killing bacteria.
No matter which disinfectant you use for your pool (chlorine is the most common), having those chemicals at the proper level is also very important. Most people believe that when they smell chlorine there is too much in the pool, but that irritating chlorine smell is caused by the presence of chloramines, often caused by too little free chlorine in the water. When we go swimming, we bring any lotions and oils and even the sweat and dirt that’s on our skin into the water, and too much of it can overload the disinfectant in the water. Aquatics expert Dr. Tom Griffiths says, “If the free chlorine levels are not sufficiently high to oxidize these nitrogenous wastes, the free chlorine combines with them to form noxious chloramine compounds.”
To reduce the chance of excessive chloramines in your pool, be sure to keep disinfectant levels where they need to be. “Whenever someone calls me with a chloramine problem, I tell them they should maintain a free residual of 0.5 ppm higher than usual. This higher level of chlorine usually does the trick, says Griffiths. “Another remedy that is rarely used but very effective is to enforce soap showers prior to swimming. A soap shower will remove excess body oils and sweat and greatly reducing the amount of body waste going into the pool. Some pool chemists claim that if everyone showered prior to swimming, it would reduce the chlorine demand by 50%.”
How and When to Test
Know your system, and know the maintenance demands for it. “For most people it’s a time issue- they hire someone so they don’t have to learn the proper chemistry and maintain it. I use a professional kit and test for alkalinity, pH, free and total chlorine, and calcium,” says Kevin Richardson, owner of Clear Water Pools in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Pool owners can also take a water sample to a local pool company- they’ll test it and give you a printout with exactly what you need.”
But you’re going to want to do at least minimal testing yourself to make sure things are safe for your young swimmers. Richardson recommends using a test strip daily to check water balance, and at a bare minimum doing so once a week. The NSPF recommends taking a water sample to a professional for testing every four to six weeks. This ensures that your at-home assessments are accurate. Salt water systems can be harder to keep balanced, so be sure to check these per the manufacturer’s instructions.
Check the Temps
Until children are a year old, their ability to regulate body temperature may not be fully developed. So water temperature is very important when bringing your babies in the water. Dr. Howard Reinstein, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, believes that water temperature should be around 84 – 86 degrees Fahrenheit for babies to be comfortable. Watch them closely for signs of shivering and get them out if it begins. Too hot can be a problem as well- hot tubs over 100 degrees are off-limits for children under 5 years of age. They can easily overheat in those conditions so be aware of temperatures in your pools and spas.
So you see, it’s more than just clean and clear that matter when keeping your pool safe and healthy for your family. You want the water warm enough and balanced correctly to make sure that you get the most out of your pool without it taking too much out of you. If you want to know more about proper pool care and how to maintain your pool or spa at its best, the National Swimming Pool Foundation partnered with the American Red Cross to develop an excellent online training program for homeowners that contains a wealth of information about pool chemicals and filtration systems, testing and cleaning, and a very good section of general pool safety matters that all parents should know.
For a discount code and a link to the NSPF Home Pool Essential course (I took it!) visit the National Drowning Prevention Alliance website. Even old hands at pool care will learn a thing or two about safely operating a backyard pool.
Do you have any pool care questions? Join the discussion in the comments below.
Though I am embarrassed to admit it, I have never been able to help much with math homework. Sure, I’m a grown man and should know a few things, but advanced mathematics isn’t something I was ever good at. Regardless of my grasp of the basics, I am far out of my depth when it comes to anything beyond geometry and basic algebra. So when it comes to helping the kids, my wife and I call in a pro (a local math teacher who tutors on the side) – and I stay out of the way. This is a good idea.
Likewise, you may be comfortable introducing your kids to the water and teaching them to relax and float, but advanced swimming lessons are simply more than you can handle. That’s okay. If breath control and proper stroke technique have you scratching your head like – well, me with polynomial long division, here are some fundamentals for finding professional help.
1. Assess their commitment to safety and professional certification
Anyone serious about working with children in the water will have taken the time to get certified in CPR and first aid. At minimum, any swimming instructor should be certified in first aid, CPR, and lifeguarding. Another certification to look for is WSI or Water Safety Instruction. This is the American Red Cross’s designation of a swim instructor. You should have no hesitation in asking to see their credentials and a good instructor will have none in showing you them.
There are other professional affiliations and training certificates that you may see, including affiliation with the U.S. Swim Schools Association. Association with a professional organization doesn’t guarantee perfection, but it does let you know that the school or instructor you are considering takes their profession seriously and is working with other professionals to improve their craft, and member schools are rated for their experience and commitment to the continuing education of their staff.
2. Understand their approach to instruction
Ask the instructor, what is your approach to swim instruction? What do you try to accomplish? What you are looking for is an instructor who works to build fundamentals and build up skills progressively. You’re listening for words like “fundamentals” and “progression” and “developing confidence” when asking questions about the way they teach.
Be wary of any guarantees for how fast or slow your child’s skills in the water may develop. Experienced instructors understand that children are different and will have their own pace when learning to swim. That doesn’t mean that group instruction is better or worse than one-on-one lessons, but you want to be sure that swim instructors have an appropriate appreciation of your child’s individual needs.
3. Watch them with other kids
I know I have discussed the importance of being there and being comfortable with your children in the water, but sometimes your presence can distract them. At certain ages, kids learn faster, stay focused longer, and even complain less when mom and dad are out of sight. Some instructors have parents watching from a clandestine spot, and this is just fine. You should, of course, be able to watch lessons before you commit. When you do this, you are looking for some very specific things.
You want an instructor or instructional team who appears patient and looks comfortable interacting with children the same age as your child. You want to see if the students look engaged or bored. Are they excited to be there and having fun, or do they look like it is drudgery? While more fun equals more learning, don’t be too put off if the older kids look like they are doing some real work. What you are looking for as much as anything is the appearance that students like the instructors and vice versa.
The American Red Cross recommends no more than ten students for every instructor, so have a look at class sizes as well. Again, group instruction isn’t a bad thing and it can even be preferable at times to one-on-one instruction. Children can gain confidence from watching others their age swimming alongside. But, too many kids at a time is hard to manage on dry land, much less in the water.
4. The classroom matters
Nothing takes the fun out of swimming like chattering teeth in a pool that is too cold. Blue lips and shivering kids are a good sign that you should look somewhere else. The clarity and quality of the water are important as well. Water quality for your home pool is equally important for any pool where lessons are held. It matters for the safety of the kids and for the quality of the learning that will go on when they are there.
Burning eyes from improper pH levels can ruin a lesson quicker than anything, and you can forget the fun factor if lessons = discomfort for your kids. A properly run pool will look and smell clean and clear. If it isn’t a place you would love to swim, your kids won’t either.
I have several friends in the business of providing professional swim lessons and all of them are proud of what they do. When you ask them for references (and you should, of course) a good instructor will be thrilled to hand them over. You can ask the parents you see when you visit, but you also want to hear from the vets, whose children have been to the school and moved on.
My good friend Johnny Johnson of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, California has taught generations of children and has a reputation spanning decades. Six of his students have competed in the Olympics! You should be so lucky to have a school like his nearby, but don’t be afraid of up-and-comers with a good reputation and the right credentials. Schools like Johnny’s have instructors who learn from the masters and move on to start their own schools in other markets. So if a friend of yours recommends a school that is maybe a bit too far from your home, you should ask them for a professional reference for an instructor in your area. Believe me, they’ll know who else is out there and will give you good advice.
Consider the five things listed above, ask good questions, and watch the instructors while they work. You’ll be well on your way to finding an instructor or swim school that is right for your child. In the end, you are looking for a place and for people that will help your child learn a skill for life. I don’t think it is a no-brainer decision, but it shouldn’t be as hard for you as trigonometry is for me.
Stay safe, have fun, and as always, I’d be glad to answer your questions in the comments below.
To become a swimmer your child has to first want to be in the water. Some children develop apprehension towards swimming that can stop their progress. To overcome this apprehension of water, you have to understand why it may be there in the first place, and then work to develop trust with your child where water is involved.
Parents should know that outright fear of water (aquaphobia) – characterized by screaming, panic, and avoidance of all contact with water including baths – is a situation that requires professional help. But general unease around the pool is something that parents can address.
Most children are naturally drawn to water, but there are several ways that apprehension can creep in. A child who is uneasy around water usually has a reason. Here are some examples of situations that make early swimmers not want to even try:
“If mom is afraid of the water, maybe I should be, too!” Children pick up on your apprehension of water first. If you aren’t a good swimmer and it doesn’t look like you are having fun, it’s going to be hard to convince your child that they should get in there with you. Non-swimming parents need to take lessons before trying to teach their children how to swim. I’m not suggesting that you have to become a fully qualified swim instructor (though that couldn’t hurt), but at least get to a place where you are comfortable and a strong swimmer before being responsible for your child’s introduction to the water.
If an adult ever told a child, “I won’t let go,” and then let go of them in the water, that child will find it harder to be trusting in the pool the next time. Early childhood experiences in the pool should be fun and easy. Your toddler doesn’t need to swim on their own or learn to float on their first (or even tenth) day in the pool. What they need is to feel secure, to have fun, and to learn to enjoy the water.
Make sure these early exposures are about fun and play and always be right there to help them and support them if they need it.
Baby Steps for the Babies
If your child doesn’t want you to take them out into the pool, don’t force them! Dragging them out against their will might not be the best idea. Instead, let them simply sit on the edge, or on a shallow step and play. Stay close and make the experience easy and fun.
Next, you can play games with the water. Splash and play with the water yourself first, and see if your child will mimic your behavior; splash water on your arms, and then your shoulders, and eventually on your face and head. You can use a plastic cup to pour the water on your head, showing your child that it can be fun.
As they get more comfortable, step things up and encourage them to splash you or have them pour the water on you and then themselves. These gentle and unforced interactions with you can build their trust and increase their comfort with you in the pool. Remember, there is no hurry and no need to pressure the child to go further. Just keep having fun and making the water about play, and slowly the apprehension should fade.
Stay Close and Be Supportive
Remaining within arm’s reach of your child (touch supervision) is vital for safety and also critical for trust. This is where the use of flotation devices like the Sea Squirts Swim Assist Vest can really help. They can make your child feel more at ease and they are fun for kids to wear. Remember, you want the water to be about fun for your child, and the right support can help the apprehensive swimmer venture with you out into the water.
Another way you can expose your child to the world beyond the edge of the pool is to pull them through the water on a small raft or even a SwimWays Kickboard. Have them hold on as you pull them through the pool and let them enjoy the ride! If you said you wouldn’t let go, then don’t let go. Just be there with them and make the experience positive.
It Doesn’t Have to Happen Today
Remember, there is no rush, all progress towards confidence is good, and no step is too small. Each push forward is gentle and the things they overcame earlier should be reinforced. Don’t make the work an all-day affair; end each day’s lesson on a positive note and talk about how much fun they will have the next time they swim. Tell them, “Tomorrow you can go even farther!”
A child’s apprehension around water can definitely slow progress when learning to swim, but it can be overcome with a gentle and unforced introduction to all the fun that can be had in the pool. You don’t need to be overly concerned or put pressure on them. Just develop their trust as you help them experience water in a way that is fun and makes them look forward to trying again tomorrow.