Water safety

Water and water sports form an integral part of many New Zealanders’ lives. We enjoy swimming, fishing, boating, kayaking, windsurfing; and we enjoy the summer days with the family on the beach or at the river. Water safety is important – here’s how to stay safe in and around the water.Along with the fun goes a responsibility for parents and caregivers to constantly watch their children around water. Tragedy can happen very quickly. It’s important that children learn to swim. It’s like riding a bike – a skill that’s never forgotten.

Swimming gets children fit, gives them confidence, a sense of achievement and a skill that could save their life. A skilled swimmer might even be able to save someone else’s life. Schools run swimming programmes as part of their physical education curriculum, but local authorities also have some excellent programmes at swimming pools with trained instructors.

If you are at the beach a lot, ask the local surf lifesaving club for advice and consider joining the club along with your children. The key to safe and worry-free days is to follow some simple guidelines. Don’t forget about water safety at home though as pre-schooler drowning accidents are most likely to occur at home.

The frightening fact is that children can drown in less than two minutes – and they can drown quietly without you ever hearing it happen. The Water Safety Council suggests you take some simple precautions around your home and that you always watch your children carefully around water. To judge whether your home is safe, try the following Water Safety checklist. How do you score?

  • I always stay with my child at bathtimes.
  • I have a non-slip mat in the bath or shower to stop slipping.
  • I always keep the toilet lid shut.
  • I keep the plug for the bath out of reach of children.
  • I make sure large water containers, such as nappy buckets, are out of reach of children.
  • I have my home pool fenced.
  • I check for water hazards around my home and I am aware of water hazards in my neighbourhood.
  • I have a safe fenced play area for my child.

Supervision around water is essential, whether it is at bathtime, in a paddling pool, at the river or at the beach. Never leave children unsupervised near water. Water areas around home such as buckets, water containers, water troughs, dog bowls and toilet bowls can all be dangerous to young children.

Children love to play, especially in water. However, as they reach into or over buckets or containers they can lose their balance and fall in. Place buckets and other water containers out of your child’s reach and get into the habit of emptying water containers and paddling pools immediately after use.

It is also a good idea to keep the toilet lid closed or the bathroom door shut – especially with toddlers who like to climb and explore.


Participation in activities in and around water, not just accidental entry into the water, increases the possibility of hypothermia. Be aware of hypothermia when canoeing, fishing or swimming outdoors. In all cases of ‘man overboard’, presume hypothermia will be a possibility.

Prevention of Hypothermia:

  • Wear many layers of suitable clothing, both in and out of the water.
  • The more wind or waterproof clothing, the better.
  • If setting out in cold, wet windy conditions continually look out for symptoms of exhaustion or hypothermia in others.
  • The greatest heat loss is through the head, neck and the backs of hands. Wear a hat and pair of gloves if cold.
  • Prevent excessive fatigue as this can contribute to hypothermia.
  • Eat or drink high energy foods frequently.
  • If possible, keep warm and dry.
  • Avoid the consumption of alcohol.
  • Clothing, such as polypropylene, will keep you warm when wet, and are excellent for canoeing and other outdoor activities.

Keep Still

Although swimming will make you feel warmer, it is a false sensation. Energy spent on moving rather than maintaining warmth will eventually cool the bodyís core. Air is warmer than water and heat loss is greater in water than in air of the same temperature, even though the chill factor may feel greater. If you find yourself in the water with floating objects, e.g. the upturned boat, then raise as much of your torso as possible out of the water.

Water Safety for pools and spas.

Of all water hazards, pools present the greatest risk for children. Half of all drownings of children under 6 occur in home swimming pools. Have rules for pool use and enforce them. Adult supervision in all pools is essential. A small child can easily be lost underwater in a crowded pool.

  • Leave books and magazines at home or inside when taking children to be in, or near, water.
  • Home swimming and spa pools are required by law to be enclosed by a fence and fitted with a self-closing and self-latching gate. Make sure your pool meets these legal requirements.

Regularly check home pools.

  • Placement of outdoor furniture.
  • Pool fencing and locks on gates.
  • Put all pool toys away after use.
  • Keep ranch sliders and other doors that access a pool area locked as well.
  • Always use a spa pool cover and make sure it is locked when the spa is not in use.
  • Keep young children away from spa pools unless there is constant adult supervision.
  • Check your spa pool has the dual drains and drain covers required by current safety standards.
  • Insist adults supervise their own children.
  • Alcohol and water play can be a fatal cocktail.
  • Don’t expect the pool lifeguards to be babysitters. Your child could be disappointed if a lifeguard finds they are unsupervised and asks them to stay out of the pool.

Water Safety New Zealand recommends you do not take babies into public swimming pools until they are at least 6 months old. By that time:

  • Their immune systems have developed enough to protect them from catching diseases from the many other children who will also be in a public pool.
  • They will have sufficient head control to enable them to keep their head out of the water.
  • Their body temperature control system will be developed enough to cope with the changes in temperature that come with undressing and getting wet.
  • Their ears will be better able to deal with immersion in water.

All children, even small babies, should wear some form of swimming clothing. Nappies are no good for swimming as they hold water in and can become heavy. Dress children in specific swimming clothes, especially if children are not potty-trained as faeces can be contained in clothing and not pollute the swimming pool.

There should be a shallow pool for babies and toddlers and the temperature in this pool should be safe for young children. Dunking a baby under water too often can cause them to swallow more water than their kidneys can handle. This can lead to a condition known as water intoxication.

Water Safety at Beaches

Whenever possible, use patrolled beaches and make sure everyone swims between the lifeguard flags, but don’t rely just on lifeguards to watch out for your children. Become more aware of surf conditions – learn to read the waves. Different types affect how safe it is for swimming. Supervision of children is essential when near water. Drowning is a silent death. Things you can do:

  • Always be in the water with your children, you are on the spot if anything unexpected happens.
  • Be wary of letting your children play with inflatable toys and toy animals, water wings and tubes as these have not been specifically designed to protect your child in the water.
  • Offshore breeze will move these quickly and your child will follow.
  • Even if your child can swim, they are not strong enough to deal with tides and rips.
  • Watch out for and avoid rips – a calm spot of water where surf is not breaking; it indicates an area where a strong undertow could pull a swimmer underwater and out to sea.
  • In a group situation: identify which adult will supervise which children. Share responsibility, it is hard to identify people in the water.
  • It is not advisable to swim alone. Snorkelling and diving should always be undertaken with a buddy.
  • To clear pressure in your ears underwater, hold your nostrils and blow gently – you will feel your ears pop.
  • If you feel tired, leave the water immediately, rest awhile before continuing.
  • Hyperventilation makes you feel light headed and panicky – blackout could follow.
  • Slow and steady, don’t be overconfident, take care of yourself and others in the water.
  • Always be alert to changes in the weather and water conditions – winds, tides, rips and waves.
  • Small bodies travel fast in water so watch for rogue waves which suddenly sweep up the beach.
  • What was a safe pool of water can suddenly change with a sweeping wave.
  • If your child is playing with a boogie board, it is a good idea to get them to wear fins or flippers as well. This will allow them to kick their way out of trouble if they get caught in an unexpected rip or hole.
  • Make sure children (and adults) wait for an hour after eating before swimming. This will help to stop cramps that can cause temporary paralysis in the water.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at the beach – not only will you be less capable of watching out for your children, but you will also be less able to swim properly.
  • Make sure your children wear appropriate clothing. Jeans are unsafe for swimming as they can get waterlogged and pull a child under the water.

Water Safety at Rivers

  • Keep small children away from sandy edges of estuaries, these can be undermined and break away.
  • Check for underwater weed, this can trap a toddler. Remember children cannot call out from under water.
  • Check the river for hazards even downstream from where you plan to swim.
  • Avoid diving into unknown waters.
  • Avoid swimming in pools that run on to fast moving water or have back eddies.
  • Avoid swimming near overhead bridges.
  • Don’t think because a river appears calm that it provides safe swimming.
  • Never underestimate the POWER of a river.
  • Avoid areas where there may be snags or tree-lined banks, above and below bridges.

Water Safety when Boating

Have rules for the boat and enforce them.

  • A boat is not a safe play area.
  • Teach your child to float should they fall overboard.
  • Be the captain of your boat, insist on everything being stored away after use, e.g. fishing gear.
  • Don’t allow horseplay on boats, this could lead to tragedy.
  • Always maintain regular safety checks on your boat, radio equipment, and lifejackets.

Water first aid

If you find a child in a water emergency, call 111 immediately, or get someone to contact emergency help while you care for the child.

S-R-A-B-C is the key to responding:

S for Safety – think about the child’s safety and your own, if you are the rescuer. Remove the child from the water and try to keep them warm and comfortable.

R for Response – assess the child’s level of responsiveness, speak to them and if necessary shout to rouse them, or shake them gently (never shake violently).

A for Airway – if you get no response, tilt the head back slightly and drop the child’s chin to open their airway.

B for Breathing – look and listen for breathing and feel for a pulse. If there are no signs of breathing, apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Administer one slow, full breath, then check the child for a pulse or breathing.

C for Circulation – Can you feel a pulse? If so, stay with the child and monitor closely until help arrives. If there is no pulse, apply CPR (see section on CPR).