The phone rang. Dad stepped away to answer it, leaving his two young children in the freshly drawn bath. Then, tragedy struck: One of his children drowned.
It was an accident. Regardless, Child Protective Services took the surviving child into custody, and Mom and Dad had to prove to the state that they were capable parents before the child could return home.
Linda DeSanders says the death of her cousin’s child in the tub that day shook her entire family. Since then, the owner of Dolfin Swim School in the Lake Highlands area has worked to prevent such accidents.
“I just want kids to be able to enjoy the water for the rest of their lives,” she says.
According to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May 2012, drowning results in more deaths among 1- to 4-year-olds than any other cause except birth defects. DeSanders directs the Texas Drowning Prevention Alliance and teaches lifelong aquatic skills, beginning with some of the most vulnerable swimmers: babies.
“It’s fascinating to watch my babies become incredible swimmers when they are just 13 months old,” she says. “We call them our waterbabies.”
Last summer, about five million people viewed the controversial YouTube video, “Baby Swims Across Pool,” in which a 16-month-old is seen swimming underwater and holding her breath in a three-foot-deep pool. DeSanders says that teaching babies to swim prevents drowning.
Because babies are born in amniotic fluid, they kick and hold their breath naturally, but around 6 to 8 months of age, they lose those aquatic instincts. As a teacher, DeSanders takes that instinct and turns it into a trained behavior.
DeSanders, an avid swimmer herself, became a lifeguard and swim instructor at age 18. When she had her first child in 1980, she wanted to teach him to swim as early as possible. But at the time, Red Cross would not offer swimming lessons to children younger than 6.
“I didn’t want to wait until he was 6 years old,” DeSanders says. “So, I used my experience to teach my own kids. By the time each of them were 2, they were capable swimmers. They jumped off high boards and dove to the bottom of the pool for toys.”
At Dolfin Swim School, babies can begin classes at 3 months old. First, they learn to float on their backs, a skill that they can use the rest of their lives.
Every April, parents can practice drowning-prevention techniques. DeSanders asks parents what they would do if their child fell in a pool, and almost unanimously they say that they’d jump in. But she says that that’s not necessarily the best response.
“Most children are near the side of the pool when they fall in. It’s not like they fall into the middle of the pool. Instead of jumping in, parents should calmly reach in, pull them out, and start talking to them to distract their mind that something bad happened. It really works.”
In 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report that Texas leads the nation in child drowning deaths. In response, DeSanders contacted every local water safety advocate she could find. The next year, 22 people came from all over the state, and within a year the Texas Drowning Prevention Alliance (TXDPA) was born. The group has members in Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, El Paso and Lubbock.
An integral partnership between TXDPA and the Texas Pediatric Society has resulted in the distribution of 16,000 drowning brochures, available in English and Spanish, to pediatric patients and their parents at annual checkups. Still, Texas continued to rank first in child drowning in 2012 and 2013.
“I want the word to get out to more people,” DeSanders says. “I know we have so much to do.”—Whitney Thompson