Teach your toddler to wait for a lifeguard

In other words, I was a normal toddler. I liked water. Slopping around in chicken troughs wasn’t life-threatening.

But what if your toddler has access to water in a swimming pool, play pool, low bird bath, creek or even a lid-up toilet? Bright, curious, active children test everything in their small world, and they particularly love water, any water. Several years ago two little boys, in different states, drowned the same day in unattended mop buckets!

Consider a typical toddler. Pretend that he’s younger than 3 years old, loves his bath and splashes water all over the room. You can hardly wait to see what he’ll do when you take him swimming. He will run in the water, kick it, whack it with a stick, jump in it, pee in it, float paper boats or push floating things down and watch them reappear.

You’re teaching him to love water but protecting him, too. Every time he sticks his tongue out to lap up water, you’ll stop him. You can also teach him not to ever get into water, even the tub, unless you are with him.

Before he goes to the play pool in the yard, surprise your child with a gift. Let him open the package, and say, "This is your suit to wear when we are playing in the water." The key word is "we."

Buy him a special towel, too, and a little toy that floats, but not one to ride on. Put his suit, towel and special toy in a bag and let him carry it. This ritual becomes a game. It might prevent his getting into some pond, creek, lagoon or horse trough!

After applying sunscreen, go hand-in-hand to the water. Before entering, say, "You sit here while I check it out." Then you get in the water and walk around. Splash your shoulders, your face and head. Then go back and hold your arms out and say, "OK. I’ll be your lifeguard, and you may come in with me."

Important things in this game are that you are in the water first, that you called his name and that you’re his lifeguard. Key words are "with me." It’s important to say his or her name frequently to help get togetherness firmly in mind. Play with the toy, kick and splash and keep busy to keep warm, but don’t stay in too long. Talk about coming back together soon. Start this ritual when he’s totally dependent on you, and loosen the reins gradually through the months and years to come.

I’ve never recommended classes for children younger than 4, and I’m aware that, even at 4, some who are obedient about other things are likely to forget when they’re around water. I’ve taught that water is not a swimming place unless a responsible person is lifeguard. I’ve warned that a pool is not a place to swim until some grown-up calls you by name and says, "You can come in now. I’ll be your lifeguard."

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