What all parents need to know about ocean safety for their kids

The best part of summer is living that #beachlife and this year many parents are looking forward to enjoying the beach while abiding by local health authorities' social distancing guidelines.

It's a great bonding experience for families and our kids can end up with happy memories that will last a lifetime. But even if there are no people coming close enough to make COVID-19 a concern, a day at the beach does come with its fair share of hazards including jellyfish, riptides and sunburns.

Beach injuries are more common than you might think, but the following safety tips can help reduce the risk of a hospital visit.

Life jackets for little ones

According to the Red Cross, water safety at the beach is a bit different than pool safety, as "even in shallow water, wave action can cause a loss of footing." That's why the organization recommends young children wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets in and the around water.

Open water, the ocean especially, can be unpredictable, so keeping little ones in their life jackets adds a layer of protection should a wave suddenly overtake your sandcastle.

Teach kids to face the water

Waves can knock kids (especially the smaller ones) over if they're not careful, but if they see them coming, they have a better chance to staying standing. Teach kids to stand with their back to the beach and face toward the ocean so waves don't surprise them.

Don't let kids bury their feet in the sand

It may seem fun to wiggle your feet down into wet, underwater sand, but those who research beach injuries say this kind of play puts kids in danger of sprains and even worse injuries, because wet sand can trap a child's foot. If they're caught off guard by a wave when they can't move, they can go down very hard.

"They are getting injured in 6 inches of water," Dr. Paul Cowan, an emergency medical specialist told Delaware Online. According to Cowan, who researches beach injury rates, kids under 16 are the most at risk for getting hurt at the beach, and while it may seem like they're safer wading than swimming, the closer they are to the shore, the higher the risks actually are.

Cowan calls the area between dry land and where the waves are breaking the "surf-zone." It is thought that in this area, a wave withdrawing back into the ocean can erode the sand beneath a persons feet. Once a wader is destabilized, another wave may knock them over. Although the water may only be knee-deep, the wader is injured when they hit the hard, sandy bottom.

That's why parents should always be supervising play and monitoring the water conditions.

Mind the jellyfish

SpongeBob Squarepants loves to chase jellyfish, but our kids shouldn't. Jellyfish stings, well, sting, as many beachgoers know. Some 800 people were stung by jellyfish along Florida beaches in just three days this month. Many public beaches have warning systems in place when jellyfish are present in high numbers. Purple flags typically denote "dangerous marine life" so if a purple flag is flying, you might want to go to the park instead of the beach.

If you don't see purple flags but still end up with a jellyfish sting on your body or your child's, seek medical attention. Lifeguards are pros at first aid for jellyfish injuries and can advise if you or your kiddo need further treatment off-beach.

Be aware of rip currents

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, everybody who goes to the beach needs to know about rip currents, as these "powerful, channeled currents of water flowing away from shore [can] quickly pull swimmers out to sea".

Rip currents account for more than 80% of lifeguard rescues, so the NOAA recommends parents check local beach forecasts before packing the kids in the car. When you get to the beach, set up as close as possible to the lifeguards, and if you're unsure about the water's conditions, ask the lifeguard before letting the kids swim.

Don't forget sun safety

The bodies of babies and young kids can't adjust to heat as well as our own, so they're at a greater risk for heat-related illness. According to the American Pediatric Association, "babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct and indirect sunlight because of the risk of heat stroke. Particularly, avoid having a baby out between 10 a.m and 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest."

If you've got a young baby, try to plan beach activities at a time when the sun's rays won't be at full power. Bringing your own shade in the form of a beach tent or umbrella can help, and so can frequent feedings of breastmilk or formula for babies and sips of water for toddlers and older kids.

Sunscreen is important for babies and older kids, the AAP notes, so apply it 15 to 30 minutes before going out, and reapply every two hours. No sunscreen is truly waterproof (even though some may claim to be) so always do a reapplication on the kids after water play.

[This post was originally published June 14, 2018. It has been updated.]

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