Water safety essentials: How to keep your kids safe at the beach or pool this summer

Follow this expert advice to safely have fun in and around the water when traveling.
View of lifeguard tower on Clearwater beach, Florida
(Photo: Shutterstock)

It’s summer vacation season, and that means lots of time spent by the pool, at the beach or lake, or at the water park. Many fun family memories are created around the water. But it’s also a situation where safety needs to be prioritized. According to a 2024 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unintentional drowning deaths during 2020, 2021, and 2022 were significantly higher than those in 2019. Drowning remains the leading cause of death among children ages one to four.

“People can have the attitude that drowning happens to other people,” says Adam Katchmarchi, CEO of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA). “But in reality, drowning happens to good parents, and drowning can happen when you’re on vacation and supposed to be having fun.” So if your vacation involves significant time in and around the water, keep reading. I spoke to a variety of experts to get their best tips and advice for keeping the whole family safe around the water while on vacation.

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1. Sign up for swimming lessons before traveling

Sign your kids up for swimming lessons before your trip. (Photo: American Red Cross)

Kids who have learned swimming fundamentals start the vacation off from a much safer place. Research has shown that teaching a child water competency can reduce the chances of drowning by as much as 88%. “Enroll your children as young as possible in swim lessons,” says Michelle Sterling, senior program manager for Safe Kids Worldwide.

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It’s not just a one-and-done kind of thing. Swimming lessons should be something you return to year after year as your child grows up. “Even if they’ve had lessons in the past, it’s still a good idea to get them into some refresher lessons prior to going on vacation,” says NDPA’s Katchmarchi. “It may be the first time they’re going swimming since last summer, so getting those skills dusted off is not a bad idea.”

Taking care of swimming lessons before your vacation is ideal, but there are also opportunities to take lessons while on vacation. Orlando World Center Marriott, for example, offers lessons through Baby Otter Swim School for hotel guests. “We are efficient and get the job done within a few days during their stay,” says Mindy York, president of Baby Otter Swim School.

2. Practice water safety at home

Parents in the pool with their children
Start teaching kids about water safety before going on vacation. (Photo: NDPA)

Whether you have your own pool at home or don’t live anywhere near the water, start teaching kids about water safety before heading out on vacation. That means instilling guidelines like never swimming without an adult present.

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“It is very important for parents to speak to children about how much fun it is to play in the water, but be direct that water can be dangerous,” says Katy Murphy, co-owner of Goldfish Swim School-Saint Johns in northeast Florida. “That’s why certain rules must be followed. Parents should explain to children that they must follow the posted rules of a water park, country club pool, or beach, and to always listen to the lifeguards and the adults.”

The NDPA and American Red Cross both offer online resources to help parents talk to their kids about water safety.

3. Do your homework

Baby Otter Swim School lesson at Orlando World Center Marriott
Learn about the different water safety features at your vacation destination; at Orlando World Center Marriott, you can even sign your child up for swimming lessons. (Photo: Orlando World Center Marriott/Baby Otter Swim School)

For parents, learning basic first aid and CPR is always a smart idea. “If there is an emergency, they’re able to then be that first line of defense while they’re waiting for EMS to arrive,” says Sterling.

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Parents should also learn what drowning actually looks like. It’s typically not like what you see in the movies or on TV, where someone is flailing their arms and shouting for help. And it can occur in as little as 30 seconds. “Drowning is fast, and it is silent,” says Katchmarchi.

“A person might be appearing to tread water or even swim, but without success of getting anywhere,” says Murphy. Certain body positions can also indicate an issue, such as a head that’s low in the water or tilted back with the mouth open; eyes that are unable to focus, glassy, or closed; or hair over the forehead or eyes.

When it comes to vacation planning, engage in some due diligence about where you’re traveling. Are there lifeguards at the beach you’ll be visiting? Does the hotel pool have a fence around it with a self-latching gate? Are there safety alarms and locks on the doors out to the pool at your vacation rental? NDPA has a vacation water safety checklist to guide parents through this process.

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“You’re going to be in a different environment where everyone is excited and looking to have fun and explore,” says Katchmarchi. “But young kids don’t understand what’s a dangerous environment and what’s a safe environment. You might be excited to rent that beach house that has a backyard pool and beach access. But if you don’t have a backyard pool or live around natural waterways, you’re now taking your family to a very unfamiliar environment that has something that can cause tragedy.”

4. Bring the right gear

Parent adjusts life jacket for child.
Use life jackets in open water, and bring your own to ensure a proper fit. (Photo: NDPA)

If your trip involves boating or lots of swimming in open water, it’s a good idea to bring your own U.S. Coast Guard–approved life jacket that’s the correct size for your child. “You might think your child is a great swimmer in a pool, but that doesn’t always translate to the ocean,” says Sterling.

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When choosing swimwear for your kids, opt for bright or neon colors. “Blue colors blend in in the water, and dark dull shades are really hard to identify even in a clear pool,” says Katchmarchi. “Wearing bright colors is super important.”

5. Stay alert

Once you’re at the beach, pool, or lake, keep an eye on your kids at all times. “Have a designated water watcher,” says Christopher Whipple, a member of the American Red Cross’s Scientific Advisory Council and a Red Cross lifeguarding instructor trainer. “Have somebody who’s dedicated to watching swimmers: no cell phones, no books, no cooking, no side conversations. That one person is in a distraction-free mode where they can give their attention and are ready to step in and provide care if needed. And then have a plan to replace that person [with another adult] on a regular basis.”

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For kids who aren’t proficient swimmers, Katchmarchi recommends that an adult be in the water with them close enough to touch them at all times. “Once they have basic swimming skills, parents can transition to a water watcher and be close, but they don’t need to be at arm’s reach,” he says. Swimming at a beach or pool where there are lifeguards present is ideal, but that doesn’t mean parents can check out. The lifeguards aren’t there just to watch your children.

“As a parent, you’re the best advocate for your kids,” says Whipple. “If I go to the pool and I have my four kids, I’ve got four kids to watch. The lifeguard is going to be responsible for tens or dozens of people.”

6. Remove temptations and create barriers

Kids enjoy being in the water, but they may not understand the dangers of swimming without parental permission or supervision. Almost 70% of childhood drownings happen during non-swim times when a child isn’t expected to be in the water.

To prevent this kind of tragic situation, make sure to keep any doors to the outside at your vacation rental or hotel room closed and locked at all times, and don’t turn off any alarms just because they might be annoying. “It’s all about layers of protection,” says Katchmarchi.

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Teach kids that rafts, puddle jumpers, pool noodles, and other floats are toys, not lifesaving devices. Relying on them too much when kids are swimming might give them a false sense of confidence about their abilities. “They think they’re able to go back to that water environment even if they don’t have that device with them,” says Katchmarchi.

Remove any temptations that might lure kids back to the water. “If you’re done playing, take all the toys out of the water so they don’t become an enticement for younger children to go back outside,” says Sterling. “They might see that ball floating around and want to go get it.”

7. Understand your kids and your surroundings

Parent with children in life jackets at a lake
A lake is a totally different swimming environment than a pool. (Photo: NDPA)

Pools, lakes, and oceans all present different kinds of swimming environments. “If you’ve only done swimming lessons in an indoor pool, an outdoor pool is going to look and feel different and have a different reflection with the sun,” says Whipple. “And then it’s going to look very different if you go to a water park and you’ve got moving spots.”

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Beaches and lakes add weather factors, currents, and different depth levels and bottom surfaces to the mix. “You can be a competitive-level swimmer in a pool and get caught off guard because saltwater is new or there’s a different current there or you get splashed by a wave that you’ve never encountered before,” says Whipple.

Know your child’s skills and limitations and watch out for signs that they’re getting tired and need a break from the water. And if you’re staying in a vacation rental, post the address somewhere prominent just in case. “Knowing how to make that 911 call can make the difference once a tragedy does happen,” says Katchmarchi.

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Beth Luberecki
Beth Luberecki is a Florida-based freelance writer who writes about travel, business, and lifestyle topics for a variety of publications and websites. She enjoys exploring destinations close to home and farther afield with her husband and teenage daughter. Visit her website at bethluberecki.com or find her on Instagram at @bethlubereckiwrites and @findingfloridafun.