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Backyard Swimming Pool Safety
by Mark A. Brandenburg, MD
There is no greater way to cool off on a hot afternoon than to jump into a refreshing pool. But the dangers of swimming pools cannot be overlooked. Over 350 children less than 5 years of age drown in swimming pools. Approximately 90 percent of child drownings involve swimming pools and 60-70 percent occurs in ground level residential pools. And it is not just your own pool that can be dangerous. About 50 percent of child drownings occur in the backyard pools of neighbors, family members or friends.

If you have an infant, toddler or preschooler at home, a home swimming pool is dangerous. And it's not just in-ground pools that are hazardous. Yes, above-ground pools are much safer because access is easier to control, but they are still hazardous to unsupervised children. If you are thinking about building a pool in your backyard, consider the risks to the young children around you. My recommendation- wait until your child is at least six years old and has taken formal swimming lessons. Then, if you still want a pool- go for it. Just be sure to learn the important safety rules.


A fence around your pool is a critical factor in drowning prevention. Pools without fences are much more dangerous because access to unsupervised children cannot be controlled. Several features on your fence must be present to make it an effective barrier.

  • First and foremost, surround the pool completely with a wooden fence at least five feet high.

  • Have your fence built so the vertical slats are no greater than three-and-a-half inches apart.

  • Install a self-closing and self-latching gate. Be sure the latch is no less than 54" from the ground and faces the pool. This will prevent an exploring toddler from reaching up and disengaging it.

  • Never let the back of your house lead directly to the pool. I know of one toddler who crawled through a pet-door and nearly drowned in a backyard pool. Other points of exit from a house are doors and windows. If your home leads directly to the pool area without a fence in between, be certain the doors and windows remain secure at all times to ensure that your exploring toddler does not venture out when you aren't looking. And as soon as possible, construct a fence in between your pool and house.

Pool Rules

Teaching Safety ~ Whether you belong to a local swim club or have a pool in your own backyard, your older child will probably be splashing away once the summer heat arrives. Begin teaching the tenants of water safety as early as possible; and be patient and persistent. You will no doubt recite the safety rules to her many times before they sink in. Follow the important poolside safety rules listed below.

  • Always, always, always supervise your child. Never leave an infant, toddler or preschooler alone while in or near a pool. Some parents who know this rule forget it when the doorbell or telephone rings- this is precisely the moment that many child drownings occur. Remember that it takes less than 30 seconds for a child to drown.

  • Keep a telephone and important phone numbers at the poolside.

  • When your pool is not in use, put toys and floatation devices away, so they will not attract young children to the water. Keep the pool grounds free of toys, tricycles, wagons and debris when not being used- they can also entice young children into the area.

  • Keep the pool grounds well lighted at night.

  • Always close and latch the gate when coming and going onto the pool grounds.

  • Keep the essential rescue items near the pool at all times (i.e. life preserver, buoy and shepherd's hook).

  • Take a CPR course and stay up-to-date on rescue techniques so you will always be prepared to save a young life.

  • Never let your child swim alone, even when she is older.

  • Don't allow running on the pool grounds.

  • Restrict diving to the diving board and only into the deep end of the pool. At least eight feet of water is necessary for safe diving.

  • Never allow diving into above-ground pools.

  • Don't allow roughhousing (i.e. dunking, pushing or wrestling) on the pool grounds.

  • Never allow swimming at night, in rainy weather or in thunderstorms.

Pool Maintenance

Certain methods of maintaining and covering your pool can also be dangerous to children. Follow these tips for added child safety.

  • Store all cleaning chemicals in a locked location. High concentrations of chlorine gas can be produced when these chemicals are mixed with water. If inhaled, chlorine gas can cause rapid damage to the lungs and airway of a child.

  • Always keep children far away from the pool when adding chemicals.

  • Place a sturdy cover over your pool in the off season.

  • Don't let water accumulate on the cover. A young toddler can drown in the small amounts of water that collect on a soft cover.

  • Be sure to secure the cover on all sides and corners so a child cannot slip beneath it.

Baby Pools

A baby pool can be a very safe alternative for your child but it's important to recognize the dangers. Baby pools also pose a risk of drowning to infants, so close supervision is still a must. Truth is, they are best suited for older toddlers and only under close supervision.

  • Never place a baby pool inside the fence of an adult pool. A young child could easily wander from a baby pool over to the big pool during a brief lapse of supervision.

  • Always empty your baby pool as soon as you are through using it.

  • Store a baby pool upside down to dry. Just be aware that an unsupervised infant could crawl beneath and get trapped.

Inflatable Swimming Aids

Flotation devices tend to give parents a false sense of security. They are not substitutes for close supervision. Toddlers can also become overconfident if they wear floatation devices. I once treated a three-year-old named Ryan who nearly drowned in a neighbor's pool after boldly jumping in. When I asked him what happened, he sadly replied, "I forgot to wear my floaties". Poor Ryan not only experienced a life-threatening event, but he thought it was his fault. Remember there is usually nothing inherently bad in such toys, as long as they are not used in lieu of close supervision.

  • Do not be lulled into thinking your child can swim unsupervised just because he is wearing a life jacket, water wings or a water ring.

  • When your child is in the water be sure you are always within arms reach, even if he is wearing an inflatable swimming aid.

The wonderful truth is that every year millions of children safely splash the summer months away in private and public swimming pools across the country. Follow these basic rules and you will help ensure that the children in your life always enjoy safe swimming.

Written by Mark A. Brandenburg, MD, author of CHILD SAFE: A Practical Guide for Preventing Childhood Injuries. CHILD SAFE is also a terrific gift for grandparents, nannies, baby sitters and all other child care providers. Dr. Brandenburg is an Emergency Physician at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Board Certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM).

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