Swimming is great exercise, as well as a fun way to spend time together as a family. There's nothing like spending an afternoon splashing around in the water and enjoying being together.

Unfortunately, many people don't realize how dangerous swimming can be without careful preparation.

In the United States, someone dies from drowning every 10 minutesOne out of every five drowning victims is a child, and, for every child who drowns, another five children get treated with injuries related to being submerged in water. Overall, drowning is the No. 2 leading cause of death for kids aged 5 to 14.

The YMCA observes National Water Safety Month each year in May, but there's no time like the present to remind parents of the basics of year-round water safety. When a parent takes time to equip their kids with essential water safety skills, they are protecting them and setting them up for a safe and enjoyable swimming experience every time.

Top 10 Water Safety Tips for Families

Water safety encompasses a person's behavior in and around the water. Before taking your kids to the pool, beach or lakeshore, teach them these 10 basic water safety tips to ensure a safe and pleasant water experience.

1. Never Swim Alone

Swimming should only happen when a lifeguard is on duty. Lifeguards don't just watch the people in the pool, lake or ocean. Their job is also to watch the water and advise swimmers on any safety concerns and questionable conditions that might arise. They are also trained to respond quickly when something happens.

In addition to swimming with a lifeguard nearby, a good rule of thumb — for children and adults — is to use the buddy system while swimming. Instruct your child to always swim with a friend or sibling so they can look out for one another if their parents aren't physically in the pool with them. Besides being more fun to swim with a friend, this also ensures there is someone who can go for help if something goes wrong.

2. Supervise Children When They’re in the Water

We understand that parents need to relax too. But when your children are in the water, it's time to be alert. As a general rule of thumb, a parent should be within arm's reach of a young child at all times. This rule is true whether they're swimming in a pool, lake, ocean or bathtub. Parents of older children should stay close and keep eyes on their children at all times. Even ones who are strong swimmers need supervision because they're prone to trying tricks, flips and dives — all things that can be dangerous in the water.

The best way to remain vigilant when your children are swimming is to put your phone away, and simply enjoy hanging out with each other! If other adults are present, you can take turns watching the pool, so everyone gets an equal chance to relax. Working together to protect your children is the best way to prevent an accident.

3. Don’t Play Breath-Holding Games

While swimming, children shouldn’t hold their breath for a long time, as this can cause drowning and has several other severe risks. Make sure children understand competing to see who can hold their breath underwater, and other similar games, can be dangerous and should not be part of any water-related activities.

If a swimmer holds their breath too long or hyperventilates before going underwater — meaning they are breathing deeper or faster — they are at a higher risk of passing out underwater. Children who swim competitively should learn proper breathing techniques to avoid problems during practices or meets.

4. Always Wear a Life Vest

Young children or inexperienced swimmers should always wear a Coast Guard-certified life jacket around water. There are plenty of products on the market claiming to help children stay afloat, such as water wings, floaties, pool noodles, etc., but these are not a substitute for life preservers or lifesaving devices in a genuine emergency. Use these products only when a parent or trustworthy adult is within arm's length of the child using them.

Also, remember a life jacket or other flotation device should never be an excuse to ignore other water safety guidelines. Life jackets alone are not enough when it comes to staying safe around water.

5. Don’t Jump in the Water to Save a Friend

If a child sees their friend struggling to keep their head above water, their first instinct may be to jump in to help. However, doing so could lead to both people drowning. The Y’s Safety Around Water program recommends the “reach, throw, don’t go” technique, which involves using a long object to pull a struggling swimmer to safety. By using this technique, children can help their friend without putting themselves at risk.

6. Enter the Water Feet First

Severe injuries can occur when kids jump or dive headfirst into shallow water. Make sure your child understands the proper way to enter and exit the pool. If they're interested in jumping and diving, make sure to teach them the correct way to do it, as well as point out the areas where it is safe to do so. If your pool does not have an area designated for diving, do not allow it, no matter how deep the water.

7. Stay Away From Pool Drains

Children's hair, bathing suits and even limbs have become stuck in broken or faulty drains, which can lead to drowning or serious injury. Teach children to stay away from these areas in pools, especially if a drain is missing a cover or appears otherwise broken. If you notice one that seems to be operating incorrectly, report it immediately.

8. Stay Within Designated Swim Areas

Whether you're swimming in a pool, ocean or lake, staying within the designated swim areas is vital to staying safe. Teach children about ropes and why people use them to divide a pool. Never encourage a child to swim in water deeper than their abilities will allow, and, especially if you're swimming in a lake or ocean, always follow guidelines local lifeguards have established. They are familiar with the water and, in the case of lakes and oceans, know enough about how it changes from day to day to make wise and up-to-date safety recommendations.

9. Avoid Using Alcohol

This advice applies mainly to older children and parents. As children become teens, talking with them about alcohol becomes more and more essential. Alcohol impairs judgment, coordination and balance. It affects a person's ability to swim well, and it can even lower body temperature. Images of teens and young adults enjoying alcohol poolside are common on television and in movies, leaving your real-life teens a dangerous picture to copy, so make sure your teens understand the truth behind mixing water play with alcohol.

Parents should also use caution. Never consume alcohol while you're supervising your children in the water. Not only can it cause you to become distracted, but it could leave you unable to function appropriately if an emergency should happen.

10. Learn CPR

While we hope your family will follow all these guidelines and stay safe in the water, the unfortunate truth is that accidents happen. If a drowning incident or pool-related accident occurs, bystanders are typically the first available to react and respond. As a parent supervising children, it's critical for you to be familiar with lifesaving techniques, including CPR for children and adults. Knowing how to perform CPR can be the difference between life and death. Get your CPR certification — and keep it up to date — through the American Red Cross, your local hospital or other community organizations.

Teach Your Kids to Be Safe in the Water

Sometimes parents listen to these rules and guidelines, internalize them and act on them without ever telling their children what we're doing and why. Be honest with your child about why they must wear a life vest. Explain why they should never swim when you aren't with them. Talk to them about the importance of avoiding deep or murky water. By being honest and upfront with your children, you'll help them apply more of what they've learned as they grow.

Just like you teach your children to look both ways before they cross the street, it's essential to teach your children how to be safe around water. You can accomplish this by sharing the water safety tips outlined above, but putting them into practice will cement these concepts and ensure you have prepared your child to swim safely.

The best way to teach children water safety is to enroll them in swim lessons. In taking these classes, children learn more than how to swim. Participation in swim lessons can significantly reduce the risk of drowning, especially for children ages 1 to 4. By teaching children water safety rules, as well as how to swim, they are less likely to place themselves in dangerous situations, and, if one does arise, they will have more tools to handle it.

A good swimming instruction program should offer:

  1. Instructors who are in the water with the students at all times
  2. Teachers who are trained swim instructors, as well as certified in CPR and first aid
  3. A place for parents to observe
  4. Limited class sizes
  5. Instruction in survival skills before teaching strokes

Water Safety Devices

Earlier, we mentioned pool noodles, floaties, loungers and inflatable toys aren't a replacement for a Coast Guard-approved life vest. This statement can often lead to confusion for parents because they mistakenly believe these items will protect their children in the water.

Inflatable toys, floaties and water wings are teaching aids while children learn to swim. They are best for occasions when a child is under adequate adult supervision, meaning an adult is within arm's length and able to intervene if a child begins to struggle. Used correctly, they can help a child build confidence as they explore the water and learn about both their abilities and limitations.

As a parent, your job is to know the difference and understand the risks of using these items. Unfortunately, some people assume these flotation devices will save a child if they begin to drown or something else happens in the pool.

There is no substitute for a life vest. None of the items listed above will keep a child from drowning or save a child if they begin to struggle in the water.

If you aren't sure about the best way to protect your child and what items are beneficial as your child is learning to swim, ask. When you enroll your child in swim classes at the Gateway Region YMCA, you have access to their swim instructor and the wealth of knowledge they possess. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't feel bad if you find out you've been doing it wrong. Our goal is to serve St. Louis and Southwest Illinois-area parents and help them find ways to better protect their child in and around water.

If your family frequents a YMCA pool, make sure you know the pool's rules regarding water safety accessories. Many pools have rules about which devices they allow in the pool. Some also have rules about parents staying within a certain distance of any child using them. Knowing the rules ahead of time can ensure a better swimming experience for you and your child.

If your family does not own a Coast Guard-approved life vest or a water safety device for use in the pool, check with your local YMCA aquatics director to find out what items are available for use at our pools.

Water Safety and the YMCA

Learning how to swim also has multiple benefits beyond the ability to enjoy the water safely. It helps children strive for physical achievement, promotes healthy living and builds their confidence. And, honestly, it's just plain fun! Setting clear, consistent boundaries is the best way to teach your family to achieve all these goals. By following these basic water safety tips, you are significantly reducing the risks associated with swimming, which allows your whole family to enjoy themselves even more.

If you're unsure how to teach your family to enjoy the water safely, the Gateway Region YMCA is ready to help. We are proud to offer a variety of children's swim lessons for children of all ages and abilities, both in group and private settings.

One of the most exciting advantages of our swim lessons is that we also offer classes for teens and adults. It's never too late to learn how to swim safely, and our highly trained and experienced instructors are dedicated to making sure you overcome your fear of the water and become the safest swimmer you can be.

Don't wait another day! Contact the aquatics director at your local YMCA to see what options are availa­ble for your family.