How to talk to toddlers about safety and help prevent tragic water accidents


Children between the ages of 1 and 3 go through the developmental tasks of learning about their bodies and the world surrounding them. Their immense curiosity, the need to touch and taste everything, to throw, to climb, etc., often puts them in dangerous situations where accidents are prone to happen.

Accidents are always unexpected

Some of the greatest dangers to toddlers are bodies of water, and not only during the summer but also during spring and autumn due to the weakened ice. The sad fact of the matter is that most toddlers drown in their own backyard or in nearby bodies of water. People are used to keeping a closer watch on their children at public beaches, where the danger to lose sight of the child is greater due to the unfamiliar surroundings, rather than in their own backyards. The yard around the house often seems more safe and can create situations where seeing the kid from afar from time to time is considered enough supervision. Toddlers, as a rule, are very impulsive, therefore a child playing calmly at one moment can change their mind in a second and be in danger very suddenly. Accidents happen unexpectedly and fast – in case of drowning, it is enough if the kid is out of sight only for a few minutes near a body of water. Drowning is usually silent, not involving screaming or yelling for help, because it is physiologically impossible due to water entering the respiratory tract or when experiencing a throat spasm.

Toddlers are not mature enough to take responsibility

Children between the ages of 1 and 3 understand words and their meanings more and more, they are developing their imagination. Also, they are beginning to notice the requests made by their caretaker and are reacting to these either positively or negatively, as well as beginning to test their self-awareness – what can I do already and how much can I decide? Every parent must’ve experienced having to explain over and over again why some things are not allowed. Every child will experience being forbidden from going near the water alone. The parent must know that a toddler is unable to make generalisations (a rule is a generalisation) and their memories are limited. Although the child can understand the words, he cannot remember them for long and will forget immediately what the parent has said! This is because the brain’s impulse and control areas are not closely tied to each other yet in children under the age of four.

Therefore, it cannot be assumed that if something has been explained or forbidden for the toddler that the kid will also remember it and will follow the set rules and restrictions. The safety of the child must be ensured by the parent, and despite the frequent explanations and the promises from the child that they will stay away from the water, the child must not be trusted by themselves. A child will gain a clear understanding of restrictions between the ages of 4 and 5.

Swimming aids will give a false sense of safety

A child swimming with inflatable armbands and a swim ring must be under the watchful eye of the parent. These aids can carry the child away from the beach or start deflating slowly due to being damaged. The swim ring carries the additional risk of upending the child so that they will be trapped under water, and the child will not be strong enough to get themselves back upright.

A toddler imagines themselves to be almighty – this makes them cross boundaries, break rules, and set out to test new things, time and time again. Children, therefore, need the help of adults in creating a safe environment, and the adults take the responsibility for and help make up for the toddlers’ lack of self-control.

Recommendations for discussing safety with toddlers:

  • While setting boundaries for toddlers, use “Stop!” instead of “No!”. By saying “Stop!” your face will be more expressive – stretch out your arm to stop the child, your eyes will widen and your tone will be more solid (commanding), but not accusatory as when saying “No!”. Also, it is good to know that a toddler’s brain does not comprehend negation. The parent’s negation sounds like an instruction to them, for example: “Don’t go near the water!” sounds to the child as “Go near the water!”
  • Speak concisely. Avoid long and complex explanations, don’t go into detail. For example, having set boundaries for the child as a parent, say “Stop!” to a child that’s running towards the water, and only after eliminating the source of danger should you talk to them more thoroughly. It is enough to tell a toddler: “We always go near the water together, that is safe!”
  • Speak in a simple manner that is understandable to the child. The younger the child, the less information their brains are able to process and remember. There is no point in lecturing a toddler on water safety for hours on end.
  • Use positive language. Meaning: tell the child what to do, not what not to do. If you prohibit unsafe behaviour, this will focus the child’s attentions on the unwelcome behaviour (and it will become the purpose of the behaviour), and children will break rules sooner or later… Therefore it is more effective to tell the child what is accepted/expected behaviour. For example, instead of saying: “Do not run around the pool!”, say instead: “Walk carefully around the pool!”. To get them to understand, you can add: walk like a turtle/cat, or some other creature that exemplifies careful walking; why not even tell them to walk like they are walking on marshmallows, etc.
  • Repeat the main message through a single word! If a child is aware of an acceptable behaviour (rule), it is unnecessary to keep repeating it to them constantly and long-windedly, instead remind them of it briefly. Do this because the toddler’s brain and attentiveness is not fully developed yet and they cannot fully comprehend what all your explanations mean. One word is enough to remind them of the rule. To use an example from the previous recommendation about the correct behaviour near a pool, an effective parent may only have to say “turtle” to remind the child of the rule.


Dagi Dorbek, The Estonian Rescue Board
Õnne Aas-Udam, psychological counsellor, trainer and creative therapist