What to Know to Keep Your Kids Safe in the Water

If your family’s heading out to the pool this weekend, you might want to read this important information on how to keep your kids safe in the water. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death in children under 15 and the leading cause for children under 4. Deborah Walson tragically lost her precious 6-year-old Christopher when his swim mask filled with water almost 16 years ago. Watch this important video and read our conversation below to hear her story…

Katie Couric: Deborah, we appreciate your willingness to share your story so much. Can you tell us about your son, Christopher, and what led up to the tragic event involving his swim mask…
Deborah Walson: There is no worse feeling than trying to make your child safe around water yet unknowingly making him vulnerable to danger. As the owner of a home pool, I was extremely concerned that my children knew how to swim at all costs. However, I didn’t understand that learning to swim is a progression, and it is critical not to skip any steps. As with many children, Christopher was initially scared to put his face in the water. However, with a mask covering his eyes and nose, he quickly learned to swim. By age 4, Christopher was swimming all over the pool. He loved the water, but always swam with his mask. I didn’t realize the importance of being able to comfortably swim underwater without it. The mask kept water out of his eyes and nose and gave him a magnificent view of the underwater world. I had a false sense of security knowing that my son knew how to swim. Christopher’s mask was purchased at a local pool supply store. It was found in the toy section, hanging amongst the torpedoes and diving treasure chests. As many parents do, I assumed that the mask was safe to use. I did not know that there were higher quality swim masks versus Christopher’s, which was made of cheap plastic. I also did not know that it is important that a mask fit properly. Just 4 years old, Christopher gained confidence swimming in all depths of the pool with the comfort of his mask. I thought he was safe.

Christopher was a bright eyed, 6 1/2 year old little boy who had that right mix of sweetness and spirit. On his last day of kindergarten, Christopher came home excited to show me all of the work that he had done. I am so grateful for accepting his eager invitation to look through his journals and artwork, page by page, before suiting up and getting ready for our friends to  arrive. We were going to celebrate the end of the school year by swimming in our pool. It had been a very cold and wet spring in Princeton, NJ, and until that day, June 23, 2003, we had yet to swim.

On that tragic day, Christopher was swimming under the supervision of two adults with 5 other children, two who were toddlers. Suddenly, with the 2 adults within 20 feet, Christopher was seen by one of the boys at the bottom of the pool with his mask filled with water. As I NOW know, drowning is very often fast and silent and can happen in as few as 20 seconds. It is estimated that Christopher was under the water for 1-2 minutes before he was seen. A 911 call was made immediately and they gave CPR instructions to one of the adults by phone. Tragically, resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

Katie: That is truly heartbreaking and I’m so very sorry, Deborah. Given all that you’ve been through and what you know now, you stress how vital it is that kids become comfortable in the water and competent swimmers before using masks…why is it so important for parents to understand this?
Deborah: Children must be comfortable getting water on their face, in their eyes and swimming underwater without anything covering their eyes or nose, so that they can be familiar and confident with their face in the water. In the words of Kim Shults (swimkim.com), San Diego swim instructor, “It’s just water! You don’t need to protect your face from water.’ If a child accidentally falls into water, it is very unlikely that they will be prepared for that fall. Should a mask flood with water, as it did with Christopher, the child will be less likely to panic if they are accustomed to the sensation of water in their eyes and nose. The child could just remove the mask underwater should a problem arise. This skill should be taught before a mask is used. Panic situations can arise with goggles as well. Regardless of these pieces of equipment covering the nose or not, you must not skip the important progressions of learning to swim without anything covering the eyes and nose. Again, a mask should never be used as a crutch to put one’s face in the water.

Katie: Talk about the quality of different masks and how that affects the potential dangers they can pose…
Deborah: The most important quality in a mask is fit. In the words of Dr. John Fletemeyer, board member of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, “Buying a mask is like buying a pair of shoes. It needs to fit properly.” Unfortunately, many masks that are found in stores are in packaging that cannot be opened and therefore cannot be tried on for fit.

Beyond the issue of fit is the quality of materials. The most important component of a mask is the skirt which is the flexible material that goes all around the mask. The skirt is what allows a seal to be created around the face and is made of either silicone or plastic. Plastic is the inferior, cheaper material and unfortunately is very often seen in children’s swim masks. Plastic can deform with temperature changes and simply doesn’t last as long. Plastic is less flexible than silicone and may not form as good of a seal around the face. Silicone is softer, forms a better seal and can last many years if stored properly. If the packaging doesn’t specifically state that the mask is made of silicone, then it is probably made of plastic. Christopher’s cheap plastic mask was stored in our garage over the winter with all of the other pool toys. During the summer months, the masks were thrown into the toy box by the pool. These temperature extremes compromised the plastic.

Masks have either a tempered, impact resistant glass or polycarbonate plastic lens.  A tempered glass lens is higher quality. There have been terrible accidents involving shattered plastic lenses and improperly tempered glass lenses, as well. Under no circumstances should anyone dive head first into water with a mask on their face as this can lead to shattering and facial injuries. Plastic lens will not break if dropped like a tempered glass lens though will scratch more easily. To make matters difficult, packaging can be misleading. If you have the ability to purchase a mask from a dive shop, you will be sure to have bought a properly labeled mask.

There is a wide price range for masks. You can pay as little as $1 in discount stores or much more in specialty stores. If you have access to a dive shop, you can try a mask on to insure that it will fit properly. Masks in dive shops will be made of silicone and properly tempered glass for the lens. You can confidently find a quality mask for a child for under $30 in a dive shop and be assured that it fits properly. If this is not an option, make sure that the mask has a silicone skirt. If you cannot try it on for fit, don’t buy it!

Katie: There were two adults at the pool when your son drowned…why do you say that it’s “just not enough to be present” when supervising kids in the water? What do parents need to do to remain vigilant?
Deborah: Drowning is fast, silent and preventable. It can happen right in front of you before you even recognize the person is in trouble. Adults and caregivers need to WATCH kids, stay in arm’s reach and remain undistracted by phones, electronic devices and conversations. A great way to ensure this safety is to always appoint a designated Water Guardian to be on duty to watch at all times, even if you are at a lifeguarded pool. This Water Guardian is surveying all people in the water-no one is drown proof and accidents can happen to anyone regardless of their age or their swimming ability. For young children, non-swimmers or weak swimmers, you must stay in arm’s reach and always be watching. Remember, drowning is fast and silent and you may not hear a swimmer in trouble.  Our friends at Colin’s Hope (www.colinshope.org) have Water Guardian badges on wristbands that the appointed Water Guardian can wear while on duty as a reminder to watch. If they need to take a phone call or leave their duty, they physically give the badge to another Water Guardian, signifying that they are now on duty. It is also important to keep the adult to child ratio manageable and also consider the swimming ability of the supervising adults and making sure someone knows CPR.

Katie: What would you like to see done in terms of packaging and warning labels so that parents are aware of the risks?
Deborah: Before detailing packaging and warning labels improvements, it cannot be understated that MASKS ARE NOT TOYS!!!!!! They are packaged and marketed to children and found in the toy sections of stores. They are anything but toys and certainly not to be used as a crutch to put one’s face in the water.

Sample labels:
LABEL 1:  Use only under competent supervision. For your safety and greater enjoyment learn to use this equipment correctly. Before entering the water read the enclosed instructions.

LABEL 2: Do not dive into water while wearing a mask. This is not a lifesaving device. Do not leave child unattended in water. Use only under competent adult swimmer supervision.

LABEL 3: Never leave child unattended. Always follow good safety practices. This not a protective mask and should not be used for any other purpose than swimming.

I have yet to find a warning label that spells out the appropriate user or better yet- who should NOT be using a mask. Masks must not be in the toy section of stores and labels on packaging need to be larger and more conspicuous, stating that masks are not toys and can be hazardous if a child isn’t comfortable swimming underwater without something covering the eyes and nose. Labels MUST be placed on the  front of the packaging with more detailed information in the instructions about proper use. We MUST do a better job at educating the public about this risk and cannot rely on parents reading small print. We know about car seats, cigarettes, bike helmets, placing infants on their backs to sleep but do not know about the dangers of swim masks on young children. Masks are not inherently dangerous but are dangerous on the faces of children who are not comfortable putting their faces in the water.

Unfortunately, getting proper labeling, packaging and marketing will be very difficult as there are very few statistics on the number of fatal or non-fatal drownings involving masks. I discovered this when I began educating myself in order to raise awareness to the issue. Even with Christopher’s death, there is no mention of a mask.  EMS, hospitals and police do not consistently report the data and specifics that surround each drowning incident. The same is true for water wings, floaties, devices and toys. However, since sharing my story and making contacts in the drowning prevention community, I have come across several other cases. As a whole, we must do better to report, track and prevent fatal and non-fatal drownings. The more we understand the problem, the easier it will be to create and distribute education and safety messaging to parents, caregivers and children so that together we can end drowning. It will take all of us and it is a message for all parents and caregivers as drowning can impact anyone.

Katie: Why have you decided to talk about this now after almost 16 years?
Deborah: For starters, everything happens at the right time. I know that I can offer a better perspective with the longer distance from the event. Having been asked why I hesitated a few times, there are two basic reasons that aren’t open to interpretation. First of all, I was busy trying to raise my other kids and deal with my grief and theirs. The second and most crippling thing that glares at me is guilt. Guilt is at the root of my silence since 2003. I felt like we had all of our based covered regarding water safety, yet my child fatally drowned. The guilt was there and then, in flooded the shame. How could this have happened to my child? Wasn’t I a good parent? However with time, I slowly started telling Christopher’s story and got similar reactions from people who had no idea that masks could be hazardous. Hearing this lack of awareness and education, over and over, gave me the courage to speak out.

When shame and blame surround guilt, it complicates grieving and makes it nearly impossible to raise awareness or work on prevention. These feelings make it very difficult to share the story to educate others in order to avoid the same tragedy from happening again. It is a never ending cycle.  How do you keep children safe if you don’t have the proper knowledge, but how do we get the knowledge out far and wide if it is shrouded in shame, blame and guilt? If we remove the shame, blame and guilt that comes after a drowning (or any other preventable death), people may understand that this could happen to them also. Drowning has NO boundaries.   Of course, there are many varying circumstances in drownings of children, but I am addressing the cases where it happens in front of caring adults, who are good parents but just didn’t know. Since sharing my story, I have come across several other similar cases of drowning deaths involving swim masks. We can save lives by sharing our stories.

Katie: What is the most vital takeaway message that you’d like to share with parents about swim masks and the precautions they need to take to protect their kids?
Deborah: The brutal truth is that Drowning IS Preventable. As the mother of a child who fatally drowned, this word-preventable- is haunting. Drowning is the 2nd leading cause of  unintentional death in children under 15 and the leading cause of unintentional death for children under 4. This can happen to YOU even in your presence. It is easy to miss the signs of drowning as it is fast and silent and doesn’t look like you may see on tv or in movies. Learn some tips so that you can recognize a swimmer in trouble here. You can quickly learn basic water safety tips by taking and sharing the Colin’s Hope Water Safety Quiz here. Alissa Magrum, director of Colin’s Hope, has been mentoring me with getting mask safety education and awareness out into the world. She, other foundations, and the water safety and drowning prevention community were completely caught off guard by Christopher’s story. Magrum is in the process of changing their online water safety quiz, taken by over 6000 people in 20+ countries, to include mask safety.

-Teach your child to swim by enrolling them in a formal swim lesson program at the YMCA, American Red Cross or through a private learn to swim program

– Block access to water – this means multiple barriers- fences, door alarms, locks and self closing and self latching gates.

-Inflatable toys, such as water wings and pool noodles are NOT flotation devices. Never rely on floatation devices that aren’t Coast Guard approved.

-Stay in arm’s reach of young children, weak and non-swimmers and make sure that an undistracted adult (Water Guardian)  is watching all swimmers, at all times.

-Make sure that caregivers learn CPR, know the address and how to call 911.  You can learn CPR through the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org/take-a-class/cpr) or an organization such as CPR Party (www.thecprparty.org)

– Drowning is a process that begins in water and can end in the water or can continue after leaving the water. Many people have heard the non-medical terms, dry drowning or secondary drowning but do not understand them. Please visit www.notoutofthewater.com to learn the signs and symptoms to look for AFTER leaving the water if you or your child has a water related accident. Knowing what to look for can help ensure that proper medical attention is received and can prevent injury or even death.

Katie: So many other parents have unfortunately gone through a similar experience and lost their kids. What advice would you give to them about the grieving process and how you’ve been able to persevere?
Deborah: How did I persevere? In the beginning, I was so numb that I relied on a rote instinct to take care of my children. I could not comprehend how I would live to become an old woman with this unbearable pain, much less lead a life with joy. I knew that I had to but literally felt diseased.  I still had 8 and 6-year-olds as well as an 18 month old. I wanted to show up for them and be their mom so just went through the motions. Perhaps from reactions to my upbringing, I immediately knew that I never wanted them to feel that they weren’t as valuable to me as was Christopher. I had to fake it until I made it, after all, we are human and can only do what we can do. After a few weeks, I had a survival “ah-ha” moment though didn’t recognize it as such at the time. My six-year-old wanted to play a game with me. I lay on the floor with her and played Yahtzee. In those 30 minutes, I discovered that I could genuinely smile and feel joy while experiencing an activity with my daughter. I quickly discovered that I needed to seek out at least one moment in the day to step out of the role of “mother who lost a child” and to connect with someone I loved or cared about or something beautiful. The moments didn’t have to last particularly long, but I needed to create them as they were my form of hope. They became longer and longer with time and eventually required less effort. If I could string together little pearls of joy, I would be able to deal with the knots and string representing the grief between the pearls. I could lean into my grief fully and completely by knowing that I would have a moment of peace around the corner. I came to call this my “String of Pearls Theory.” I can say that I now have a strand that would wrap around the planet. The beautiful thing is it that this applies to life in general, as well.

So now, almost 16 years later, with my chest in knots from leaning into the ever-present sense of loss and stringing together answers to questions that will hopefully save another young life, I take respite in knowing that a pearl awaits me in the other room, waiting to play a game of cribbage.

Katie: Deborah, we can’t thank you enough for sharing your story. We’re so very grateful and our hearts are with you.

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