Water sport safety

July 21, 2022 Swedish Health Team



Summer is in full swing. Many of us are enjoying time on the water, whether that's poolside or at a lake or river, or on the shore. It’s a good time to remind ourselves how to stay safe in the water and during activities on the water.

Many people are unaware that having a personal flotation device (PFD) like a life jacket is required even when paddle boarding. Wearing a properly fitting PFD makes drowning much less likely if you fall into the water, injure yourself, or have another problem while out on the water. 

We spoke with Elizabeth Meade, M.D., FAA, IBCLC, for information about water safety devices  and the best practices for keeping ourselves and our little ones safe on the water. 

"Drowning is the leading cause of injury related death in young children, ages one to four," says Dr. Meade. "It is one of our most critical jobs as parents to teach our children water safety skills and ensure that they are never alone in the water or without appropriate supervision around water, even for a moment." 

What is a personal flotation device (PFD)?

A PFD can be a standard life jacket, or a newer version of an inflatable vest or waist pack that is inflated manually with a cord or automatically when submerged in water. Remember that the newer manually-inflated PFDs are not inherently buoyant so if you are injured or become unconscious you may not be able to pull the cord in time. For children under age 16 and non-swimmers, a standard life jacket is recommended.

Puddle jumpers may seem like they provide a layer of water safety, but there is concern that children who use them regularly may learn to default to an upright/vertical position. This could put them at increased risk of drowning if they enter the water without a flotation device and attempt to tread water (which is very difficult for young children), rather than learning to float on their back. Additionally, life jackets are intended for open water use where conditions may be unpredictable, not for regular pool use. And no flotation device is a substitute for learning to swim or age-appropriate and careful adult supervision.  

Always wear a PFD while participating in any water activities. Some people think that carrying a life jacket on your paddle board or other vessel is enough – but if you are injured or panicked, you may not be able to get it on in time. Wearing a PFD is the best way to protect yourself. And it goes without saying that children should always be wearing a PFD when out in the water.

Children and water safety

Children should always have an adult with them when swimming or doing water sports – young children should have “touch supervision”, meaning that an adult is always within arm’s reach. Designating a “water watcher” and being clear about who is responsible for watching kids is essential.  Over and over I have heard from parents of children who drowned that it "happened so fast…I turned my back for a second." You can avoid this happening to you. The buddy system is helpful no matter what age you are – being on the water alone increases drowning risk significantly.

Young children should have “touch supervision”, meaning that an adult is always within arm’s reach. 

Other tips

Although it may seem like you’ve heard it before, it can’t hurt to familiarize yourself with these tips before going out on the boat for the day or when planning a paddle board excursion.  

  • Avoid alcohol or other altering substances when participating in water sports.
  • Follow manufacturer’s recommendations for any devices you use – pay attention to weight limits, safety recommendations, and instructions for use.
  • Ensure every member of your party has a PFD and knows how to operate it.

Finally, learn to recognize signs of drowning – they may not be what you think. Drowning is usually silent, and doesn’t come with warning signs like screaming or waving arms. Be vigilant for anyone who appears to be floating face down, gasping or with their head tilted back, “ladder-climbing” with their arms and legs, bobbing or appears tired, or someone who is alone in the water – especially a child.

"Water activities are wonderful for getting outside, staying active and having fun," says Dr. Meade. "By teaching your child to float and swim and familiarizing yourself with best practices for water safety for the whole family, you can enjoy these activities and still keep everyone safe and healthy." 

Learn more and find a doctor

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Stay safe while exercising in summer heat: Tips from a Swedish sports doc

Three summer safety tips – sunscreen, heat exhaustion, water

National Safety Council: Water safety

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.


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