Swim and survive: Time to turn tide on child drownings  

Drowning deaths of children have risen in the past year, and swimming advocates are urging parents to turn the tide. It was a moment that could have torn Karli Wright’s life apart; a split-second lapse that so easily might have ended in the tragic drowning of her three-year-old daughter. 

“Janelle was three and I was a bit blase. As a first-time mum I thought there would be plenty of time to teach her to swim,” says the Albert Park mother of two. “It’s the old story – we went to a friend’s house for a barbecue and there was a pool. The gate was open and Janelle just trundled her way into the water.”

Wright heard the splash and pulled the toddler from the pool immediately. 

“We were so lucky. The next week I enrolled Janelle in swimming lessons and I tell every mum I meet now to do the same,” Wright says. “You just can’t take the risk – your child’s life is not a risk you take.” 

According to the latest Victorian Drowning Report, released by Life Saving Victoria, 37 people drowned in Victoria in 2011-12, three more than in the previous year.

The data also revealed a 17 per cent increase in hospitalisations of children aged five to 14 years for non-fatal drowning since 2001.

Although there were no deaths by drowning in Bayside and Port Phillip during the past 12 months – and fatalities have declined in the area over the past decade – parents are being warned to remain alert and take precautions to protect their children. 

Life Saving Victoria’s manager of research and injury prevention, Dr Bernadette Matthews, says swimmers should never enter the water alone and parents should never take their eyes off their children around water.

 “Actively supervise them, not just the occasional glance. Children under five should always be within arm’s reach,” says Matthews. “Many drowning deaths are preventable, so we must continue to be vigilant.”

Matthews says pools should always have safety barriers and pool owners should check them regularly for damage.

Robert Caulfield, president of Kidsafe Victoria, says it’s shocking for many parents to learn that children can drown so quickly and silently. 

“Twenty seconds is all it takes for a toddler to drown,” he says. 

 Caulfield says it’s essential to appoint a designated adult to supervise children around water, especially at parties and gatherings where people can become easily distracted.

“Never, ever take your eyes off your children in the water.” 

Clair McGarrigle, manager of Sandringham-based swim school Klim Swim, says now that swimming lessons in schools are no longer compulsory, the onus is on parents to ensure their children can swim.

“About 10 years ago, swimming lessons were compulsory in schools,” says McGarrigle. “That is no longer the case so parents need to be more vigilant with their children around the water.’’

The focus of swimming lessons at the Bayside-based centre has changed as well, the manager says. 

“We teach kids water safety and survival skills, we talk about safety outside the swimming pool – what to do at the beach, on a boat, in a river and at home swimming pools. We need to make children aware that they are to swim between the flags at the beach and to be aware of the dangers of swimming pools at homes.”

McGarrigle recommends that children start water familiarisation as young as six months. “You’re more training the parents – water familiarisation and socialisation are great for the child, but you’re also teaching the parent how to handle their children so they’re both comfortable in the water,” she says.

“We’ve had families that have certainly had scares, luckily none that have had a tragedy ... It’s just so important that parents ensure their kids know how to swim.”

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