Swimming is the perfect exercise for many children, starting from the time they are babies. Not only does it work muscles which would otherwise be neglected, it can improve flexibility, posture and balance as well as reduce anxiety and stimulate endorphins. For children with asthma, it can be the only way for them to exercise without an asthma attack, and those with physical ailments find the weightlessness of swimming pool to make swimming relatively painless. It can also be used as a bonding technique between parents and their children with developmental difficulties.
But swimming can also be dangerous. Accidental drowning is the third highest cause of accidental deaths for children in the UK and takes on average four hundred lives each year. While drowning deaths in back garden swimming pools are significantly lower than those in large bodies of water, they are also much more avoidable - so why aren't families doing more to protect their children?
When you build a pool in your back garden, there are a number of additional adjustments you will need to make to ensure the environment is safe for your own children and pets as well as any that may find their way into your garden. Firstly and most importantly is to install a swimming pool safety cover to lay across your pool at all times when it isn't in use. Although it isn't a good idea to walk on these, a genuine safety cover will be able to take the weight of a child if they happened to get out there. Safety covers are often fitted into runners along the inside of the pool and have the added benefit of lowering the amount of chemicals you will need, making the pool water safer all round.
Secondly, build a fence around the pool. Many states in the US have this as a mandatory requirement for back garden swimming pools, but don't let the lack of law in this country deter you from implementing this safety device. It should be at least 1.5 metres high and have a child safety gate through which you can access the pool, and you will want to check it once a month or so to ensure its integrity. Don't keep anything solid enough for kids to climb on near the edge of the fence or they could find their way over! If the fence is installed on non-stick flooring, you reduce massively the chance of someone running and slipping into the pool.
Two different types of pool alarm are available; one which will go off when someone opens the gate of your fence and one when something gets into the water. While both are useful, the gate alarm gives you a better chance of stopping whatever is going through you fence from getting hurt in the pool. The water pressure alarm may be useful if you have pets that are able to cross the fence; animals shouldn't be allowed near the swimming pool at all, partly due to a risk of drowning and partly to keep them away from potentially dangerous chemicals (which should be kept securely away from them).
But perhaps one of the most important things to consider is implementing strict rules in the poolside area. Some of these may seem obvious - no running, no diving, keep life jackets and pool floats around - but you also need to consider factors such as keeping the area tidy of pool toys which could present a tripping hazard. Ideally you should install a pool toy box and teach children that everything goes away when they leave the pool. Children should never swim unsupervised anyway so as the responsible adult you can ensure they are following the rules. Explain the consequences of being unsafe so they understand why they need to be so careful.
The National Drowning Prevention Week advocates the "safe" system for both private and public pools, which goes as follows:
S - Spot the dangers. Keep an eye out for hazards, edges, slippery floors and what could be in the water or on the floor of the pool.
A - take Advice. Read signs if you're at a public pool, swim near to a lifeguard so they can help, and unconfident swimmers should always use a buoyancy aid.
F - take a Friend. Most swimming accidents happen when someone swims alone. If you have friends or family around, someone can get help or assist in pulling you out. Teach children to always swim in company
E - know what to do in an Emergency. Many parents don't know how to give CPR and wouldn't know how to save their own child's life. Learn resuscitation techniques and the recovery position at the bare minimum.
Children are far more likely to drown on holiday than at home, making it even more important that they understand how to behave around a swimming pool. There are also noticeably more fatalities on the first and last days of the holiday, when parents are occupied and children want to explore. If there are any open bodies of water nearby, do NOT allow your child to wander off by themselves.
Although it is quite uncommon for children to drown in their own swimming pools, it is more common for them to be hurt by "secondary drowning". This can occur when an incredibly small amount of water makes its way into the lungs and stops oxygen from flowing to the bloodstream effectively. 2cm of water is all that's needed, and it often gets into the lungs during "near-drowning incidents" - fatalities may occur anywhere between one and seventy-two hours after the incident.
Look for symptoms which include trouble breathing, coughing, sudden changes in behaviour, chest pain and extreme fatigue. If your child shows any of these within 72 hours of being in water, either through an incident that you witnessed or in just a minute of being unsupervised, take them to the hospital immediately. If oxygen isn't flowing properly to the brain it can cause tissue damage, leading to brain damage.
Drowning in the home swimming pool is a relatively rare occurrence only affecting a few children each year, but we like to think we can do better - so by following these simple safety steps and instilling the message of safety in children from a young age, we can reduce the number over time until no lives are unnecessarily lost because of something so simple as neglecting to install a swimming pool safety cover.