Teaching your kids to swim this summer? Steer clear of floaties

In the drowning prevention community, we dread hearing the other F-word: floaties. These seemingly innocuous devices give responsible parents a false sense of security with the assumption that the inflatables will keep their kids safe and help teach them to swim.

The problems with this all-too-common summer scene are twofold.


First, floaties create a false sense of security for kids and their parents. Children who regularly use the floatation aids can fall under the dangerous illusion they know how to swim. Meanwhile, caregivers wrongly assume their children are safe and require less supervision.

Second, rather than floating horizontally, inflatable armbands place children in a vertical configuration known in the water-safety world as the “drowning position.” To illustrate, let’s visit a cannonballing kiddo. After leaping into the pool, his head will dip briefly under water before popping back above the surface. He’ll then use his legs to tread water, likely in a “climbing stairs” motion.

Remove the floaties from the equation, and this vertical orientation would quickly send him to the bottom of the pool. His corresponding leg movement would only speed up the process and prevent him from rising.

Together, the combination of false confidence and muscle memory can be catastrophic, if not fatal.

In some tragic cases, a child accustomed to using floaties will accidentally fall into a body of water and automatically assume their usual drowning position, without the know-how to swim their way to the surface.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this overreliance on floaties is a meaningful factor in the childhood drowning crisis, which remains the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4. The dangers of floaties are pervasive enough to be common knowledge among swim instructors and drowning prevention advocates.

Like children, parents can’t afford a false sense of security: Nine out of 10 drowning deaths occur when a caregiver is supervising but not paying attention. Drowning can happen quickly and quietly in a matter of seconds.

A May report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an overall increase in U.S. drowning deaths after decades of decline, including an almost 30% rise among children ages 1 to 4.

What can parents do? Consider enrolling your young children in a lifesaving learn-to-swim program. The United States Swim School Association has an online directory available to find a school near you. Research has shown that formal swim lessons can result in an 88% reduction in drowning risk for children ages 1 to 4, according to the National Institutes of Health. High-quality classes exist for babies, toddlers and children of all ages.

Vigilance is also crucial. Don’t rely on lifeguards or assume someone else will spot a potential crisis. Instead, designate an adult “water watcher” to keep a close eye on your kids.