Keep Kids Safe at the Beach
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Frolicking in the ocean, building castles in the sand, basking in the sunshine: Nothing screams Summer Vacation quite like a trip to the beach! But before you toss the floaties in the car and stuff your cooler full of snacks, learn how to best keep your whole family safe on the sand and in the ocean. Here’s how:
Choose the right bathing suit.
While your toddler’s blue gingham swimsuit might be cute-as-can-be, it’s not the safest color combo for the beach, according to recent research from Alive Solutions, a company specializing in aquatic safety. They tested the visibility of 14 bathing suits in varying colors and patterns in both a pool and in a lake and found that only neon yellow, green, and orange swimsuits were still detectable under 18 inches of open water. While small patterns didn’t seem to impact visibility much, large dark patterns actually decreased visibility even further. While you’re swimsuit shopping, keep a rashguard in mind, too. After all, it’s way easier to protect a kiddo’s body from the sun with a UV-protective top than sunscreen.
Bring lots of water.
Thanks to having a higher surface area to volume area, babies and young children are at greater risk of getting dehydrated in the beach heat than you. Plus, youngins often can’t or don’t tell you they’re thirsty. That’s why it’s extra important to pack lots of water and fruit, like watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, peaches, or cucumber, all of which have a high water content that can help keep your bub properly hydrated. (Learn more about other super-hydrating foods.)
Offer a water or fruit break every 20 minutes or so. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 need roughly 4 cups of beverages a day, including water and those between 4 and 8 need about 5 cups daily, but you’ll want to increase these amounts during hot beach days. To keep your 6- to 12-month-old well hydrated, you can offer them 4 to 8 ounces of water a day. Babies under 6 months get all the hydration they need from either breastmilk or baby formula. So, on sweaty beach days, simply offer more of the same. (Learn more about babies’ and toddlers’ water intake.)
Pick the safest spot.
When you’re scanning the beach, don’t just think about where you want to lay your towels, but where you’ll be playing in the water, too. That means, you should always…
Avoid swimming near piers, pilings, or jetties. Dangerous rip currents often form near piers and other permanent structures, which can push you under the water, further into the ocean, or directly into these obstacles! While in the water, always stay at least 100 feet away from them.
Find the lifeguarded area. Only swim where there are lifeguards on duty. Look for a halved red over yellow flag. This signifies that the area is protected by lifeguards. If you spy a red (high hazard), yellow (medium hazard) or red over red flag (water closed) find a new place to settle.
Go by the bay. Waves are created when wind blows across a giant expanse of water. So, when something disrupts that air flow, like a splice of land around a cove or a bay, the waves are severely muted, making it a safer spot for kids to play.
Chat with the lifeguard.
If you are new to the beach or curious about ocean conditions, stroll right on over to the closest lifeguard tower and ask the following questions to glean some important ocean safety intel:
“What’s the water temperature today?” In general, 82 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal water temperature for kiddos to swim in, with babies being most comfortable when the water is on the warmer side of the scale. (Cold water drains body heat up to four times faster than cold air, which can cause your body to go into “cold shock” that’s dangerous to breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.)
“What’s the water condition?” Lifeguards are trained to detect dangerous currents and waves, so they can clue you into how safe the water is.
“Are there any underwater hazards to know about?” Reefs, rocks, shallow spots, suddenly deep drop-offs, tangly vegetation, sting-happy marine life: Any number of unknowns can be beneath the surface of the water.
Embrace the life jacket.
Those cute and cartoon-y inflatable water wings you may have already purchased for your water baby won’t protect your bub from drowning. What can? A U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket (check the label!)—and you within arm’s reach of your kiddo at all times. For tots under 5 years old, choose a life vest that features a strap between the legs and a head support to keep your bub’s head up and their face out of the water. (These will be labeled “type II life jackets.”)
PS: Puddle Jumpers, a one-piece flotation device with arm floaties that attached to a chest band buckled at the back, are approved by the Coast Guard…but they’re considered a type III personal flotation device. That means Puddle Jumpers are only appropriate for calm, protected, inland water near shore, where chance of immediate rescue is good. These floats are not designed to turn unconscious swimmers face up in water.
Be sand smart.
Hanging out on the sandy beach seems safer than swimming in the ocean. And, it often is! But it’s important to keep these potential dangers in mind:
Sand-hole collapses: If your small fry loves digging in the sand, make sure the hole is only knee-high. Digging deeper can put your child in danger of being in a sand-hole collapse. Research shows that once a child is caught in a sand collapse, they can easily become completely submerged, leaving virtually zero trace of the hole—or your kid! Seems like a one-in-a-million chance, right? But the truth is, there are more sand-hole collapse fatalities than shark attack fatalities nationwide!
Germy sand: If there’s a swimming advisory at your beach because of potential pollutants, stay off the sand, too. Pathogens can persist in sand longer than in water, so you should assume the sand is also contaminated, especially at the water’s edge.
Hot sand: Don’t let cooler weather fool you! Sand can be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit even when the temperature is just 75 degrees. That means, when temps are closer to 90, the sand can be over 120 degrees, making getting your kiddo some beach/water shoes a must!
Learn water safety.
Everyone who goes to the ocean should know how to swim, but let’s be honest, chances are your baby or toddler is not a sea-ready swimmer! Swimming in the ocean is a totally different experience than swimming in a pool. But there are things you can do to help prepare your little one for this type of water experience:
Do these types of swim lessons. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends swim lessons that focus on water survival as early as 12 months as a layer of protection against drowning. While there’s no evidence that infant swim lessons reduce a baby’s risk of drowning, research has shown an 88% reduction in drowning risk in kids ages 1 to 4 who’ve taken swimming lessons. And by age 4, swim lessons are considered “a must” for most families. (Learn more about baby swim lessons.)
Don’t rely solely on swim lessons! Swim class is simply one of many important strategies to help prevent drowning. Other tiers of protection include constant supervision, keeping young children and inexperienced swimmers within arm’s reach, putting your child in a life vest, and ensuring your child only goes into the water with a buddy and near a lifeguard. (Teach them the catchy phrase: “Swim as a pair near a lifeguard’s chair.”)
Wait before you get in. Watch the water for 5 to 10 minutes before getting in so you can spot rip currents before entering. According to the National Weather Service, you’re looking for dark, narrow gaps of still water heading offshore between breaking waves. Rip currents sometimes look milky, turbulent, or sandy, but there’s never any wave activity there. Another rip-current clue: The ocean leaves pronounced scalloping on the beach. (Rip currents account for 80% of beach rescues!)
Show kids how to enter and play in the water. Always carefully walk into the water from the sand. (No jumping in from an elevated position!) And, once in the ocean, continue to face the water, not the sand. If your child is standing with their back to the water, unseen waves can easily knock them over.
The sun is no joke at the beach! For one, beaches are usually shade-free. But also, ultra violet (UV) rays are stronger during the summer and they easily bounce off the water and sand, leading to an increase in dangerous UV exposure. It’s no wonder that between 55 and 72% of children get sunburned each year. While sunburns cause some serious ouchies, getting just one blistering burn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles your child’s chances of developing melanoma later in life. To keep your child’s skin safe, commit these skin-smart beach tips to memory:
Choose this sunscreen. Children need a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 or higher. And avoid sprays, which are notorious for shoddy coverage. Dr. Harvey Karp recommends mineral sunscreen and the AAP advises avoiding the sunscreen ingredient “oxybenzone.”
Time your protection: Apply sunscreen to your child a half an hour before going out.
Use enough sunscreen. You’ll need about an ounce of sunscreen (roughly enough to fill a shot glass or a medicine cup) to cover your child’s body, with a half teaspoon worth for their face. Don’t forget their ears and feet, two of the most neglected spots!
Reapply! No sunscreen is waterproof and no sunscreen lasts all day. In most cases, sunscreen needs to be reapplied every two hours. And water resistant sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when swimming, and then needs to be reapplied.
Think beyond SPF. The best way to avoid sunburn is to stay off the beach between 10am and 4pm, which is when the sun is at a peak intensity—even if it’s cloudy! If that’s not possible, seek shade, dress your tot in sun-protective clothing, a 3-inch brimmed hat, and sunglasses. That’s especially true for babies under 6 months old, who shouldn’t wear sunscreen.
More on Summer Safety:
- How to Keep Little Ones Safe During a Heat Wave
- Is Your Baby Overheating? Signs Your Little One Is Too Hot
- Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fave Summertime Safety Musts
- More Water-Safety Musts
- Alive Solutions: Swimsuit Color and Pattern Testing Results
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): Choose Water for Healthy Hydration
- American Red Cross: Swimming Safely at the Beach
- United States Lifesaving Organization: USLA Approved Beach Warning Flags
- National Ocean Service: Why does the ocean have waves?
- Children’s Hospital of Orange County: Beach safety tips for families
- National Weather Service: Cold Water Hazards and Safety
- National Weather Service: Actions to Take at the Beach to Protect You, Your Family and Others
- Safe Kids Worldwide: Keeping Kids Safe in Open Water
- Safe Kids Worldwide: Ask an Expert: How To Find The Right Life Jacket?
- YMCA of Greater Brandywine: Puddle Jumpers—A Love and (mostly) Hate Relationship
- BoatUS Foundation: Different Types of Life Jackets
- Sudden Death from Collapsing Sand Holes. The New England Journal of Medicine. June 2007
- Town of Ocean City Maryland: A Lifeguard’s Beach Safety Tips
- Swim Guide: 9 tips for keeping kids safe at the beach
- Beach Feet: A Sand-associated Thermal Injury to the Soles of the Feet and the Plantar Aspect of the Toes. Cureus. December 2019
- AAP: Swim Lessons: When to Start & What Parents Should Know
- Association Between Swimming Lessons and Drowning in Childhood. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. September 2014
- American Red Cross: Swim as a Pair Near a Lifeguard’s Chair
- National Weather Service: Rip Current Science
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ocean Today: Rip Current Safety For Kids
- American Cancer Society: How Do I Protect Myself from Ultraviolet (UV) Rays?
- Correlates of Sun Protection and Sunburn in Children of Melanoma Survivors. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. April 2016
- Skin Cancer Foundation: Sunburn & Your Skin
- AAP: Sunburn: Treatment & Prevention
- Cleveland Clinic: 5 Places You’re Probably Forgetting to Put Sunscreen
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: Sunscreen and Your Morning Routine
- Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan: Misconceptions About Kids and Sunscreen
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.