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Safety: In and around water

  • Children love water and have a natural curiosity about it. Water play can be a fun activity, and learning to swim has many benefits.

    However, drowning is the third most common cause of death for Australian children aged one to 14. Children can drown quickly and silently – it only takes 20 seconds and a few centimetres of water. One- and two-year-old children are particularly at risk.

    Near-drownings can have catastrophic consequences, and lead to permanent disabilities.

    Water safety rules

    Supervision is vital in preventing childhood drownings or near-drownings. By learning and enforcing the following four simple safety rules, you can help keep children safe around water.

    Rule 1: Constant active supervision

    Never take your eyes off children in, on or around water.

    • Supervision means constant visual contact, not the occasional glance.
    • You should actively supervise children, even if they can swim.
    • Avoid all distractions, including using a phone or answering the door.
    • Do not leave older children (under the age of 16) to supervise younger siblings.
    • Children under five must be within arms’ reach, and children under 10 must be clearly and constantly visible and directly accessible.

    Rule 2: Restrict access to water

    It is illegal for pools and spas not to be fenced off.

    • Private swimming pools and spas must have a childproof safety barrier.
    • Empty water from baths, buckets and wading pools immediately after use.
    • Watch children around fountains, eskies, fishponds and pet bowls. If you can’t empty the water, cover with a suitable material or put items away out of reach.
    • Check your home regularly for water hazards that may need repairs, such as broken pipes or open drains.

    Rule 3: Learn first aid and resuscitation

    • Parents or carers should do a first aid course to learn infant and child cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in the case of an emergency.
    • First aid skills should be updated every three years, and CPR skills annually.

    Rule 4: Increase water awareness

    • Swimming and water safety lessons are recommended for all children.
    • Build your child’s familiarity and confidence around water through aquatic play, setting rules and discussing water safety in a variety of locations.

    Check your environment

    Take the time to check your surroundings to reduce the risk of drowning or a life-changing injury.

    Bath time

    • Never leave a child under five alone in the bath and never leave older children or siblings to supervise.
    • Let the water out as soon as bath time is over.
    • Prevent scalds in the bathroom by reducing the water temperature of your hot water system to 50°C.

    In the pool

    • A pool fence or lifeguards at a public pool are not substitutes for supervision.
    • Ensure that fencing complies with the appropriate standards. (The Victorian Building Authority lists the Victorian standards.) Gates should open outward away from the pool, and be self-closing and self-locking. Never prop open a pool gate – it is illegal to do this.

    At the beach

    • Beaches patrolled by lifesavers are the safest. Teach your child to swim between the red and yellow flags, which indicate the beach is patrolled by lifesavers.
    • Supervise your children and look back at the beach regularly to ensure you are still between the flags while in the water.
    • Teach your school-age children what to do if they are caught in a rip.

    Inland waterways – lakes, rivers and dams

    • Many drowning events occur in lakes, rivers or dams, sometimes after diving into shallow waters. Never dive into a body of water, and always check it’s OK to swim before entering, even if you have been there before – conditions change over time.
    • Teach your child not to go near the dam, creek, river or lake without you.
    • Teach children they should never swim in fast-flowing water – submerged objects like trees and branches may not be visible and can cause serious injury.

    Key points to remember

    • Never leave a child alone around water. Always actively supervise children in, around and on water.
    • Restrict access to all sources of water and empty baths, buckets and wading pools immediately after use.
    • Learn first aid and CPR in case of an emergency situation.
    • Build your child’s familiarity and confidence around water.
    • Carefully check your local water environment and be aware of changing conditions.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    What are the rules for children wearing lifejackets when out on boats?

    Different states have different lifejacket laws. In Victoria, The Marine Safety Act states that every person aged less than 10 years old who is on an open area of the vessel wears a lifejacket at all times. See Maritime Safety Victoria: Lifejacket laws. Make sure your child’s lifejacket fits properly, as they may slip out of an adult-sized jacket. Transport Safety Victoria does not recommend taking infants on board recreational boats, because lifejackets may not be effective. For more information, see Maritime Safety Victoria: Lifejackets.

    Are there legal requirements about fencing for dams on private property?

    In Victoria, barriers or fencing are not legally required for dams, fish ponds or fountains. However, farm owners are responsible for the safety of their dam, and are required to register their dam and obtain a licence for operating the dam in some cases. You should check your own state or territory guidelines for legal requirements outside of Victoria.

    Despite the legal requirements, keeping bodies of water fenced off is the best way to prevent drowning. To prevent toddlers from wandering off unnoticed towards bodies of water, consider instead fencing off the yard or allocated play areas, and always supervise children when outdoors.

    There are lifeguards at the local pool and surf lifesavers at the beach where I take my child. Do I still need to learn first aid and CPR?

    Lifeguards and surf lifesavers should not be a substitute for constant supervision of your child when they are at the pool or beach. Even though lifesavers and lifeguards are specially trained in first aid and CPR, it is recommended that parents and care givers also participate in first aid training so they can confidently attend to injuries or emergencies, especially for situations when a lifeguard is not available (e.g. at a friend’s pool).

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information in consultation with Life Saving Victoria and RCH Trauma Service. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed October 2018.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit


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