“One year ago, I unknowingly contributed to my son’s death by strapping on this damn puddle jumper.”
This is the story of Nicole Hughes, mother of three-year-old Levi, who had drowned in a pool in June 2018.
She blames herself for his demise, moreover, she blames his puddle jumper, an item she thought would preserve his life. Nicole was adamant that her son would put on his puddle jumper inside the house, before he even goes near the pool. There was never a moment of doubt that she was doing her utmost for her son’s safety.
“This was back when I thought drowning happened to neglectful parents who didn’t watch their children while swimming, back before I knew the real truth about drowning,” she writes on Today’s branch called Parenting Team. 
The Day of Levi’s Death
Levi Richard Hughes was an adorable toddler full of endless energy. He loved playing hide and seek, jumping on a trampoline, and cuddling and often asked his mother for “all of the hugs” and “all of the kisses.”
His family traveled to Fort Morgan, AL, every year with five other family. This is where he played in the pool and enjoyed his time in the water while wearing his puddle jumper.
Sunday evening, June 10, Levi and several other kids were watching TV. Once it got dark, they would go crab hunting. Levi was wearing a neon yellow shirt with a crab on the back, a matching set with his father. He was eating a brownie his mother had split with him. In a room with ten adults and many children, he slipped out the door and went downstairs to the pool area.
To this day, they did not know what lured him there. He barely left his mother’s side for anything.
His mother glanced over the balcony and saw her son had sunk to the bottom of the deep end. She still had her half of the brownie in her mouth when she jumped into the pool to save him. Six of the adults were doctors but none were able to revive him. Levi’s death left the family devastated. His drowning had taken mere seconds. 
His mother suspects that Levi was used to being supported by his puddle jumper. He had a false sense of security in the deep water. “I do know that he had zero chance once he reached the water. He truly thought he would just pop back up.” 
Outside of birth defects, drowning is the #1 cause of death for children ages 1-4. 
The biggest misconception about drowning is that there’s time to save the child. There is not.
“Young children can drown silently in as little as 25 seconds, even in the shallow end or in a baby pool,” says Lois Lee, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency-medicine specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.
It’s not a result of negligence either. Nine out of ten kids were being supervised during the time of their drowning. Kids are fast, impulsive, and unaware of the dangers of the water. And they can sink without splashing or crying out for help. 
The Case for Puddle Jumpers
Puddle jumpers are similar to arm floaties but with an additional tube around the child’s chest. They keep the head and shoulders of the wearer out of the water and the body in a vertical position. They are coast guard certified to be safe, and are a good way to get a reluctant or scared child into the water without hanging onto the parent’s neck.
However, while the child may independently explore the pool, it will not encourage him/her to learn how to swim. The vertical position of the legs will have to be unlearned in proper swimming classes, and the child will have to get accustomed to putting his face under water. If used for too long, the puddle jumper may become a crutch and discourage the child from wanting to learn how to swim without it.
Puddle jumpers may be a good stepping stone to introduce a child to the water, but they should not postpone proper swimming lessons. A parent can begin to teach the child the proper swimming position by holding them as they lean into the horizontal posture. Teach them to kick and allow them to get used to putting their head underwater. 
In Levi’s case, his mother believes that he was so accustomed to simply floating in the pool in his puddle jumper, he may have not understood that wouldn’t happen without it. He may have gained from swimming training and learning the struggles of swimming without a puddle jumper. This is speculation, though, for no one will know what truly happened the night Levi wandered toward the pool.
After Levi’s death, Nicole was heartbroken but also feeling betrayed. Why hadn’t she known about the dangers of child drowning and how to prevent it? With drownings being such a large statistic, why is no one talking about it?
A month after Levi’s death, she wrote a plea to the American Academy of Pediatrics, explaining her story and begging for more resources and education on this topic.
“I am reaching out to you to beg you to initiate a true drowning prevention program,” she writes. “Please. It cannot bring back my son, but I cannot sit back and read more stories every day about a child that drowned (quickly, silently, during a non-swim time) and read about how the parents didn’t know. I know it seems obvious that drowning can happen, that it is clearly a danger. But, we also know that car wrecks are a potential danger, yet, car safety is constantly emphasized.”
Her actions did not stop there. The Hughes family created a non-profit organization to educate others and build awareness about water safety. It’s called Levi’s Legacy. Please like their Facebook Page to join them in creating awareness.
Among other resources, PSAs, and videos, they created the title of “Water Guardian” to encourage constant supervision of swimming children, or children near a pool area. They offer cards with the Water Guardian logo on it, with a subheading that says “Drowning happens in seconds.” These tags were endorsed by the American Lifeguard Association. 
Tips to Prevent Child Drowning
The sad thing about these kinds of death are that they are 100% preventable. The next time you take children swimming or to an area with a body of water, keep in mind the following tips:
- Always stay within arm’s reach of the child.
- Ignore the phone. One glance is all the time it takes for a child to submerge.
- Don’t rely on water wings. They cannot replace proper life jackets.
- Build proper fences around the water.
- Register the child for swimming lessons.
- Teach the child the five important rules of water play:
- No running
- No pushing people in
- No diving in the shallow end
- No pulling others under the water
- No swimming without adult supervision. 
Overall, it’s time to stop the stigma of child drowning and negligent parents. As Nicole Hughes says, “Can we please treat drowning like we treat putting the baby back to sleep, vaccinations, and car seat safety? Drowning is just as deadly and just as preventable.”
- ‘My son drowned, and in my last video of him all I see is a puddle jumper’ Today Nicole Hughes Published August 6, 2019
- ‘Levi’s Story’ Levi’s Legacy
- ‘How to Prevent Child Drowning: A Must-Read Guide for Parents’ Parents Ari Brown, M.D, Pamela Kramer, Kate Lawler. Published June 24, 2012.
- ‘Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts’ CDC
- ‘The Expert Scoop On Swim Aids’ The Aqua Life Stephanie Rainey. Published May 8, 2018