This happened almost two years ago now and when I think about it, it still gives me chills. We live in an estate in regional Melbourne that has a park and a large lake just around the corner from our house. My mother also lives in the same estate and she regularly helps us look after the kids.

One day, my mother was out walking in the park with my son Ned, who was almost three at the time, his then four-year-old sister Grace, and their cousin Patrick, then aged three. They’d often do this walk—on this occasion, all three kids were on their bikes—and it was just like any other day.

As the kids were getting on their bikes to go home, Grace pointed out a koala in a nearby tree to her grandma and in those few seconds that she turned to look at it, the unthinkable happened.

Ned turned his balance bike around and wheeled it towards the grassy edge of the lake, instead of staying on the bitumen footpath. When my mum looked back, her worst nightmare had become a reality. Ned had lost his balance on the bumpy grass and had fallen into the water.

In that moment, a mother’s sixth sense kicked in. I was waiting for them at home and I remember Ned popping into my head all of a sudden and I had the panicked thought, Where are the kids? Should they not be home by now? I proceeded to call mum’s mobile.

However, she didn’t even hear it because she was leaping into action to save Ned’s life. Ned was in the dark murky lake water up to his chin. He was screaming for help and paddling fast to keep his head above the water.

Luckily, Ned was able to tread water for long enough for mum to reach him and pull him out. He was so frightened that he’d held onto the bike with his legs and the bike came out with him as mum dragged him onto the grass.

When they arrived home, Ned was in such shock, crying and cold. I remember thinking that the day could have turned out much differently and changed our lives forever if not for Ned’s basic swim skills and my mum’s quick thinking. He developed a fever after the incident and we were worried he had aspirated some water. He was taken to emergency to get looked over and thankfully everything was OK and we were sent home.

Two things I want every parent to know about water safety for kids

Ned at his swimming lesson.

We’ve had Ned in swimming lessons since he was two and I’m so thankful every day that we did that. It ultimately saved his life as he knew how to keep his head above water, even with his heavy helmet and clothes on. If his head had gone under, mum wouldn’t have been able to see him or know where he was. That’s such a scary thought.

1. Prioritise getting your kids to swim lessons

Yes it takes time and costs money, but it’s not really an optional skill. It’s a mandatory, life-saving skill.

2. There is water everywhere

You don’t have to be actively putting your child’s swimmers and sunscreen on and heading to a beach or pool to be putting a kid in potential danger. It could happen anywhere—even when riding a bike! You hear it all the time, that accidents happen in a few seconds of having your back turned, and it’s true. You won’t always be able to stop the accidents—they happen! But if your child has the skills, they’re well equipped to give themselves the best chance of survival.

Expert advice: What parents can do

Megan and Ned (front left) with their family.

Mark Collins is CEO of JUMP! Swim Schools, which has over 50 boutique children’s swimming schools across Australia and New Zealand. He says COVID-19 has presented several challenges, with reduced swimming skills among children posing a big threat.

“Taking time off from learning to swim often results in loss of confidence and skill—and usually we see the effects if children have more than three weeks or so off.”

Mark says there are a few key things parents can do to ensure their child’s safety around water:

  • Talk to your children actively about water and water safety and the fact they may need a bit of practise before they’re back to swimming at the same level they were.
  • Ideally, be in the water with your kids.
  • Set ground rules with your kids before you arrive at the location. For example: stay in the shallow, stay between the flags, always hold my hand, no running.
  • Only swim in areas that are manned by a lifeguard.
  • After a break, don’t assume your child is at the same swimming skill level they were at before the break. It may be that children who were confidently able to stay afloat in the water may now need assistance.
  • Make grandparents and other carers aware that your child’s swimming skills may be a little rusty and encourage them to alter their plans accordingly if need be (such as play in the backyard with the sprinkler instead of going to the pool with grandma).
  • Remember that water accidents don’t always happen when your children are actively swimming and dressed in their bathers. They may be riding their bike along a lake, on a walk near a jetty or boat ramp, or playing in a backyard that has a dam.
  • Get kids back to lessons as soon as you can and consult your swim teacher to ensure they’re in the right class for their current skill level.

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