Barriers to Swim Lessons Contribute to Tragedies

June 16, 2021

Safety is Essential in Returning to the Water

Summer 2021 will be the first time many people venture back in the water following the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago underscored the need for families to practice water safety and teach children about safety around pools and at the beach. The consequences of being unprepared when it comes to water safety have been deadly; 53 people drowned last year in Lake Michigan and drownings in the Great Lakes hit their highest numbers in a decade in 2020.

The latest Voices of Child Health in Chicago report from Lurie Children’s delved into experiences with swim lessons and water safety among Chicago parents and children Chicago parents indicated that 46 percent of their children never had swimming lessons.

In Chicago with abundant free beaches and public pools, swimming skills and caution are essential. The top three reasons parents gave for their children not having swimming lessons were cost (35 percent), not enough time (22 percent), and unable to find lessons (21 percent). Other parents noted that they taught their children how to swim or did not send their children to lessons due to the pandemic.

Overwhelmingly, White parents (96 percent) said they knew how to swim, followed by Asian/other parents (83 percent), Black parents (73 percent) and Latinx parents (68 percent). A similar pattern was reflected along racial and ethnic lines for children, with 70 percent of white parents saying their children had lessons, in addition to 63 percent of Asian/other parents who gave their children lessons, and 45 percent of Black and Latinx parents whose children took lessons.

“Water safety skills are essential, especially for Black youth who drown at five times the rate of White youth. Many people can’t wait to start swimming again, and we hope all parents will take action by pairing supervision with education so their children are safer in the water,” says study co-author Michelle Macy, MD, MS, emergency medicine physician and Scientific Director of Community, Population Health, and Outcomes at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at Lurie Children’s.

Children’s swimming abilities were also associated with a family’s household income. For children whose families live below the federal poverty level ($26,500 for a family of four), 38 percent were able to float on their backs for 30 seconds without help, compared to 51 percent of children from middle-income households and 64 percent of children from high-income households. Floating for 30-seconds is one key survival skill that can reduce the risk of drowning.

Taken together, survey results about cost barriers to swim lessons and safe floating highlight low household income as a barrier to swimming safety. Fortunately, survey responses indicated that children’s swimming ability increased as they grew older. By the time adolescents reached age 12 and up, 65 percent could swim the length of a swimming pool without a flotation device.

“Swimming is one of the most important life-saving skills that children and adults should master. Whether for fun or for exercise, swimming will serve them well for the rest of their lives, and it’s never too early to start learning,” says Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Lurie Children’s, Executive Vice-President and Chief Community Health Transformation Officer at the Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities at Lurie Children’s, and Chair of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “I could not swim as a child, and I learned as an adult in order to stay safe in the water.”

Drowning happens quickly and quietly. Dr. Macy offers the following guidance to help keep children safe in the water:

  • Learn CPR, first aid and the basics of swimming such as reaching the surface, floating, moving through water.
  • Always stay within arm’s reach of young children and weak swimmers.
  • Designate a “water watcher,” who keeps an eye on children in the water and will not be distracted.
  • Know the signs of drowning, such as gasping for breath, head tilted back, floating face down.
  • Check weather updates before you go.
  • At the beach, take the following precautions:
    • Heed the warning flags and beach patrol, and swim only with lifeguards present.
    • Stay out of structural and rip currents, which are common in Lake Michigan. Running perpendicular to shore, rip currents are often identified by water without breaking waves in between stretches of water with crashing whitewater waves.
    • Stay away from high, rapidly approaching waves because they leave little time to resurface if you’re knocked over. Two-foot waves can knock down a toddler.
    • Protect children in lakes, oceans and pools with U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, even if they know how to swim.
    • Pack plenty of sunscreen, insect repellent, bandages and drinking water. Be sure to also have your medical insurance card, cell phone and emergency contact information handy.

Survey findings are based on data from the Voices of Child Health in Chicago Parent Panel Survey. The survey is conducted exclusively by NORC at the University of Chicago for Lurie Children’s and is administered to Chicago parents three times each year via internet and telephone surveys. The data in this report are from Wave 2 of the survey, collected between November 2020 through February 2021, from 1,505 Chicago parents from all 77 community areas in Chicago and weighted to be representative of households with children across the city.

Population-focused child health research at Lurie Children’s is conducted through the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation Center at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of new knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals in U.S. News & World Report and is the pediatric training affiliate for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 221,000 children from 47 states and 30 countries.