Two years ago, Megan Ayers' mother was out walking in the park with her two-year-old grandson, Ned.
Just like any other day, the capable grandma also had his four-year-old sister Grace and cousin Patrick, three, in her care.
All three children were on their bikes, taking a leisurely ride around the estate in regional Melbourne where the family live, that also features a lake.
As the kids were getting on their bikes to go home, a terrifying situation began to unfold.
"Grace pointed out a koala in a nearby tree to her grandma," Megan tells Essential Baby. "And in those few seconds that she turned to look at it, the unthinkable happened."
"Ned turned his balance bike around and wheeled it towards the grassy edge of the lake instead of staying on the bitumen footpath. And when my mum looked back, her worst nightmare had become a reality."
Ned had lost his balance on the bumpy grass and had fallen into the water.
Megan was waiting at home, when suddenly her mother's intuition kicked in.
"I remember Ned popping into my head all of a sudden and I had the panicked thought, where are the kids?," she explains. "Should they not be home by now? I proceeded to call mum's mobile."
However, Megan's mum didn't hear the call, because she was leaping into action to save Ned's life.
"Ned was in the dark murky lake water up to his chin", the now mum-of-three recalls. "He was screaming for help and paddling fast to keep his head above the water."
Fortunately, the little boy was able to tread water for long enough for his grandma to reach him and pull him out.
"He was so frightened that he'd held onto the bike with his legs and the bike came out with him as mum dragged him onto the grass," Megan says.
"When they arrived home, Ned was in such shock, crying and cold. I remember thinking that the day could have turned out much differently and changed our lives forever if not for Ned's basic swim skills and my mum's quick thinking."
The toddler had also developed a fever and Megan was concerned he had aspirated some water so she bundled him up and took him to Emergency to get checked over.
"Fortunately everything was ok and we were sent home," Megan reveals, adding that Ned had been in swimming lessons for a year which she is 'thankful' for every day.
"It ultimately saved his life as he knew how to keep his head above water even with his heavy helmet and clothes on.
According to Megan, if his head had gone under, his grandma wouldn't have been able to see him or know where he was.
"That's such a scary thought," the 34-year-old admits. "The whole incident still gives me shivers."
As a result of her frightening experience, Megan is speaking out and making a heartfelt plea to all parents.
"There are two things that I want every parent to know," she says. "Firstly, prioritise getting your kids to swim lessons. Yes it takes time and costs money, but it's not really an optional skill. It's a mandatory, life-saving skill.
Secondly, I would remind parents that there is water everywhere and you don't have to be actively putting your child's swimmers and sunscreen on and heading to a beach or pool to be putting a kid in potential danger.
The fact is, Megan continues, it could happen anywhere – even when riding a bike.
"You hear it all the time – that accidents happen in a few seconds of having your back turned – and it's true. You won't always stop the accident – they happen!"
"But if your child has the skills, they're well equipped to give themselves the best chance of survival."
What can parents do
Mark Collins, CEO of JUMP! Swim Schools, says this year could be one of the most dangerous Australia has seen, with reduced swimming skills among children after lockdowns in 2020 posing a big threat.
"Pools were forced to shut during the peak swimming lesson period last year and Swim
Australia's Swim Safer report has shown that 41 per cent of parents don't plan to enroll/re-enroll in the next 12 months.
"Taking time off from learning to swim often results in loss of confidence and skill – and usually we see the effects if children have more than three weeks or so off, he explains.
"Considering many children have had more than six months off already, the loss in confidence and basic, life-savings skills is very likely and immensely concerning."
Mark says there are a few key things parents can do to ensure their child's safety around water:
- Talk to your children actively about water and water safety and the fact they may need a bit of practice before they're back to swimming at the same level they were earlier in the year.
- Ideally, be in the water with your kids.
- Set ground rules with your kids before you arrive at the location eg. stay in the shallow, stay between the flags, always hold my hand, no running.
- Only swim in areas that are manned by a lifeguard.
- Don't assume your child is at the same swimming skill level they were at the start of 2020. It may be that children who were confidently able to stay afloat in the water may now need assistance.
- Make grandparents and other carers aware that your child's swimming skills may be a little rusty and encourage them to alter their plans accordingly if need be (eg. instead of going to the pool with grandma perhaps it's safer to play in the sprinkler).
- Remember that water accidents don't always happen when your children are actively swimming and dressed in their bathers. They may be riding their bike along a lake, on a walk near a jetty or boat ramp or playing in a backyard that has a dam.
- Get kids back to lessons as soon as you can and consult your swim teacher to ensure they're in the right class for their current skill level (which may be different from their previous level).
For more info on water safety and swimming lessons, head to jumpswimschools.com.au