A Parent’s Guide to Swimming Pool Safety & Hygiene

  1. An introduction to swimming for children
    1. Why should your children learn to swim?
    2. What age should children learn?
    3. Swimming at school
  2. Swimming pool safety
    1. Understanding the signs
    2. Water safety tips for all ages
    3. Water safety in other bodies of water
  3. Swimming pool hygiene
    1. Key hygiene risks
    2. How swimming pools are kept clean
    3. Essential good practice for parents
  4. Useful links

An introduction to swimming for children

Young girl swimming with float

Learning to swim is a memorable experience – for both children and parents. It can be nerve-racking if your children aren’t confident swimmers. But once they start improving their skills, swimming is rewarding. Indeed, it’s considered an important life skill. 70% of parents think swimming is the most important sport for children to learn, according to The Swimming Teachers Association (STA).

Being comfortable in and around water can maximise safety. Yet one in three children between the ages of 10-16 can’t swim. The 2017 report, again from STA, highlighted how parents struggle with a lack of time and money to teach them. But did you know swimming is on the National Curriculum?

With more than 700 people drowning in the UK and Ireland every year, it’s no surprise that swimming is a priority for the government. But with targets falling behind, what can be done? In this guide, we explore the importance of teaching children to swim and how to improve safety and hygiene.

Why should your children learn to swim?

First and foremost, swimming is fun. Most children love getting in the water and for people of all ages, it’s an enjoyable leisure activity. But there’s another important reason why everyone should be given the opportunity to learn: swimming is one of the only sports which can save your child’s life.

According to Swim England, drowning is still one of the most common causes of accidental death in children. Learning to swim can be lifesaving. Yet a surprising amount of people reach adulthood with restricted skills. As part of Drowning Prevention Week 2019, research from The Royal Life Saving Society UK found that:

You don’t want your child to grow up not knowing how to swim, or potentially being fearful of the water. Swimming is something that children of any age or ability can get involved with – in fact, it’s one of the most accessible sports for anyone with additional needs.

Here are some of the other benefits of learning to swim:

In the UK, most of us – children and adults – don’t meet the national recommendations for physical activity. In fact, there are growing concerns about how sedentary behaviour can affect us. It’s all too easy to stay glued to our screens, whether that’s the TV, a laptop or our phones. It’s something all of us can relate to, which is what makes the health benefits of swimming for exercise some of the most persuasive.

For children and young people (aged 5-18 years old), it’s recommended you should be physically active for an average of at least 60 minutes a day. For adults, as well as strengthening activities, at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week is recommended.

Yet few of us are achieving the recommended amounts of exercise, as Sport England reports:

So, why swim? Of course, any exercise is beneficial. But swimming is great because it can:

Source: The Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Swimming report, June 2017

There are positive statistics about swimming participation. The graph below shows the share of children participating in swimming, diving or life-saving activities in England. Children of different ages are getting involved with swimming – in fact, it’s the most popular sport among 5 to 10-year olds in England.

Source: Statista

Source: Statista

What age should children learn?

There is an argument that positive swimming experiences in childhood reduce the likelihood of developing a fear of water later in life. Whatever your take on that, it’s an optimal time to start gaining good experiences. In general, children and young people tend to have higher participation rates in swimming. The earlier you can start encouraging healthy habits, the better.

Taking babies swimming

Despite what many people believe, babies can go swimming immediately. According to NHS guidelines, there’s no need to wait until your baby has had their first immunisations. However, a lot of baby classes won’t take newborns until they’ve had these injections, so be sure to check with your local pool.

You can take your baby outside of a dedicated class too. Just make sure to familiarise yourself with the facilities – in particular, what temperature the water is. It needs to be at least 32°C for babies under three months. For anyone starting to take their baby swimming, here are some tips to help familiarise your child with the water:

Swimming with young children

Children develop at different rates. But while there’s no ‘correct’ age children should be able to swim by, it’s an important life skill. When thinking about when to start lessons, consider your own child, their maturity, physical abilities and how comfortable they are in water.

With younger children, it can be beneficial to start with classes that are designed for both parent and child. It’s a good way to get them used to, and excited to be in the water. After all, it’s got to be fun.

However, by the time they reach around 4 years of age, swimming lessons become more important because children can start learning skills which are vital for safety. This includes floating, treading water, getting back to the surface from underwater and propelling themselves forward.

Children with a fear of swimming

Not everyone loves being in the water. All it takes is one bad experience to become afraid of swimming. For some children, they have to gain confidence from the beginning; after all, water can be scary for little ones. Some of the most important things to remember as a parent include:

Essential purchases for swimming with children

Depending on the age of the child you’re taking swimming, this list may vary. But it can help as a starting point when you’re packing for your child’s first swimming lesson:

Swimming at school

According to GOV.uk, swimming instruction should be provided in Key Stage 1 or 2. Pupils should be taught to:

You may remember learning to swim in primary school. But it’s becoming less common and almost one in four cannot swim the statutory 25m when they leave primary school. This isn’t surprising, as only 8% of the parents surveyed by STA said that their child has swimming lessons through their school.

Without dedicated time, primary school children are failing to gain the skills necessary. A lot of the pressure is falling on parents to ensure their children can swim safely. But this isn’t without its challenges, as parents report problems with time and money, citing membership costs and inflexible pool opening times as the main reasons for not taking their children swimming regularly.

The Swim England Learn to Swim Programme is the national syllabus used to help teachers deliver swimming lessons. According to their Swim Census 2018, 1.18 million children learn to swim on the programme – but that’s across all sites, private swim schools and aquatic clubs.

It’s no surprise the government has supported a drive to ensure all children can swim by the end of primary school, offering extra support and improved guidance to primary schools in England. Launched in spring 2019, it’s part of the government’s sport strategy ‘Sporting Future’ and will have access to a £320 million PE and Sport Premium. It’s hoped this will give more children the opportunity to learn to swim at school.

Swimming pool safety

Young children’s swimming lesson from pool side

If you’d like to dedicate more time to taking your children swimming, you’ll want to do it safely. One of the most important things for families to ask about is the adult and child supervision policies – to maximise safety, children need to be watched at all times.

Every pool has its own policies, but The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) – the leading national professional body for sport and recreational management in the UK – says it’s likely the following is true:

Policies tend to be based on age because it does influence swimming ability and the child’s understanding of risks. Factors such as height, maturity and behaviour should also be considered.

If you’re looking to encourage improved skills or behaviour, you might also want to research private swimming lessons. Good programmes should tick all the following boxes:

Understanding the signs

Most pools use the same signs, as there are certain requirements to make sure everyone understands the message. Signs are used to display vital safety information in a suitable and well-positioned way. With swimming pools, some of this information includes:

Regulations for signs in the UK require them to be pictorial, clearly visible and kept in good condition. Where necessary, signs are supplemented by text.

Different signs are used to communicate various warnings, as seen below:

Water Safety Signs
Signs that warn you of danger Signs that mean you should not do something Signs that mean you should do something

Triangle shaped

Yellow background, with black symbols

They are placed to help you spot a hazard that is not always obvious

A red ring shape, with a line running through

White background, red line and black symbols or shapes

They inform you of things you are not supposed to do

Blue and circle shaped

White symbols or shapes

They inform you of things you need to do

They mean that you should be aware of something. These signs tell you that it would be dangerous to do something or go in that place. These signs tell you that you should do something to be safe.
'Caution: Depth 1 meter' sign 'No diving' sign 'Shower before and after using the pool' sign

Source: ROSPA

Always pay attention to these signs, as they are there for everyone’s safety. Ignoring safety recommendations can put everyone at risk.

Supervision at pools

In addition to safety signs, poolside supervision should be provided. Depending on the size of the pool, there should be a sufficient number of trained lifeguards. The table below provides some guidance on the recommended number, but it doesn’t account for diving boards or any specialised equipment. If a pool has any slides, rapids, diving areas or uses inflatables, expect more lifeguards.

Approx. pool size (m) Area m2 Minimum no. of lifeguards Recommended no. in busy conditions
25 x 10 250 1* 2
25 x 12.5 312 2 2
33.3 x 12.5 416 2 3
50 x 20 1000 4 6

*If you have one lifeguard you must ensure they have means of calling for assistance in the event of an emergency.

Source: Guidance on the operation and use of small swimming pools, Lincolnshire Health & Safety Liaison Group

Lifeguards are there to keep everyone safe and as such, should hold a qualification from a relevant organisation (such as The Royal Life Saving Society UK), as well as a first aid qualification. That’s because it’s one of a lifeguard’s main responsibilities – to give immediate first aid when needed.

To maintain safety at pools, you can also expect lifeguards to:

Water safety tips for all ages

Water safety isn’t all down to the lifeguards. Everyone should behave responsibly – and for parents, that includes encouraging your children too. Some of the key lessons to learn include:

Water safety in other bodies of water

Outdoor swimming continues to grow in popularity. Between November 2017 and 2018, research from Active Lives Survey showed that more than 4.1 million people swam in lakes, lochs, rivers and seas. Memberships at outdoor swimming clubs are booming and more events and competitions are cropping up around the country.

A refreshing and invigorating experience, outdoor swimming is possible across the UK. But unlike swimming pools, where swimming is in designated areas supervised by lifeguards, a lot of outdoor swimming spots are unsupervised.

If you – or your children once they’re advanced swimmers – want to try swimming in rivers, lakes or in the sea, it’s recommended that you go to dedicated open water swimming venues or areas of beach which are patrolled by lifeguards.

Thanks to its growing popularity, there are venues which offer induction and training sessions for beginners. Swimming outside in natural bodies of water is completely different to the warmth and comfort of a swimming pool, so it’s a good idea to have your first go under the watchful eye of an expert.

Plus, outdoor swimming can be a very social sport. You’ll be able to find other swimmers to socialise with at swimming clubs and from Facebook groups. One benefit of this is sharing recommendations for safe swimming spots.

Other tips from RLSS include:

Swimming pool hygiene

Babies swimming lesson with mums

We all want to swim in a clean pool. A lot of work goes into maintaining a clean and hygienic environment for swimmers. But not all pools live up to the same standards. If you spot any of the following warning signs, it’s probably a pool you want to avoid:

Key hygiene risks

Sometimes germs can be spread around swimming pools, but it’s important to take a realistic look at the risks and what you can do to maximise hygiene. Any warm and damp environment can provide the ideal conditions for bacteria to multiply, but pools follow stringent regulations to ensure cleanliness is maintained. There should be nothing to worry about.

The aim is to avoid the spread of any recreational water illnesses (RWIs). This is the term used by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the leading national public health institute in the US, but can be applied to any country. It refers to any illness that can be spread at recreational water facilities, including swimming pools, hot tubs and spas. These illnesses include:

Verrucas are spread by contaminated surfaces or through close skin contact. According to the NHS, they’re more likely to be spread if the skin on the soles of your feet is wet or damaged – so swimming pool surrounds and changing areas can be a source of infection.

To prevent the spread of verrucas, the NHS recommend:

Do Don’t
Wash your hands after touching a verruca Do not share towels, socks or shoes if you have a verruca
Change your socks daily if you have a verruca Do not walk barefoot in public places if you have a verruca
Cover verrucas with a plaster when swimming  

Identifying verrucas

Also referred to as plantar warts, verrucas are warts on the bottom of the foot. But how do you know if you have a verruca? The following characteristics are common:

Verrucas can clear on their own without treatment, although this can take weeks or months. Because they can be unpleasant and painful to walk on, you may want to get them treated. You can buy gels, creams, plasters and sprays from pharmacies to get rid of verrucas.

But how do germs get into pools and the surrounding areas? Swimmers are actually one of the main ways contaminants get into pools – this could be via sweat, cosmetics, sunscreen, saliva etc. Other sources could be from dirt, food or any other solid that ends up in the pool. It’s easy for this to happen when people don’t follow the guidelines.

How swimming pools are kept clean

To maximise hygiene standards, proper sanitation is required. To control the risks of bacteria and germs spreading, filtration and disinfectants (most commonly chlorine) are used. These systems and chemicals are needed because completely preventing contaminants entering the pool is impossible.

Chlorine is quite a recognisable smell, but did you know a strong smell doesn’t indicate cleanliness? In fact, properly treated pools shouldn’t have a strong smell of chemicals. When chlorine mixes with contaminants in the water, the irritants produced are called chloramines – and that’s what smells.

But with a well-maintained system of pool filtration and recirculation, contaminants that are large enough to be filtered out can be removed quickly. Then a disinfection system is also needed to kill any pathogens and help to prevent those RWIs spreading. It is down to the pool to maintain the right level of chlorine or other disinfectant.

Keeping the pool clean should be one of the top priorities for pool managers. Protecting against the spread of germs is best achieved by routine monitoring and maintenance of chemical feed and filtration equipment.

Accidental and extreme contamination of pool water can’t be treated or controlled using the same methods. Pools normally have to be vacated and sometimes drained too.

Essential good practice for parents

We can all contribute to good standards of hygiene when swimming. After all, we all share the same water. It’s everyone’s responsibility to stick to good practice. This includes:

Footbaths are also a common sight, but they can be a barrier for disabled people. Another effective method of cleaning feet is the use of foot sprays.

By taking extra care, you can avoid key hygiene problems and contribute to a safe, clean swimming environment for everyone.

ROSPA: Swimming

Swimming Safety Tips

The Outdoor Swimming Society: is it safe?

Guidelines for Safe Recreational Water Environments

Swimming Pool Hygiene

The A - Z of Why Swimming Is Great for Kids

Why Your Child Should Learn to Swim

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