Beach Safety Tips: 5 Ways to Protect Your Kids

From building sandcastles to splashing in the waves, beach time is fun for children. It’s also good for their health: Kids can easily get in a day’s worth of physical activity by running, swimming and playing. Plus, time in nature, particularly by water, has been linked with improved emotional well-being into adulthood.

Although a day at the beach can provide wonderful memories, children’s safety can be a concern, so it’s critical that parents take precautions. Beach safety starts before you step foot on the sand, says UNC Health pediatrician Heather Williams, MD, noting that you should be clear with your children about the rules.

“You can set expectations for kids,” Dr. Williams says. “Explain that we’re going to the beach, we’re going to have fun, and these are the things we have to do when we’re there.”

Dr. Williams shares five tips for a safe day at the beach.

1. Provide constant adult supervision.

At the beach without kids, you’re free to read a book, take a nap or watch the waves. With kids, however, you should be constantly supervising, even when they seem to be entertaining themselves.

“Beaches are generally safe, but kids should always be supervised around the water,” Dr. Williams says. “If you’re with a group of people, designate an adult to be on watch at all times.”

When you’re on watch, stay as close as possible, especially if your children are near the water, as it takes only a few seconds for them to encounter trouble.

Adults should also pay attention to signage and flags, which may indicate hazardous conditions, the presence of dangerous marine life or areas where swimming is prohibited.

Finally, lifeguards at beaches should be considered an additional safety measure, not a replacement for you. “An extra set of eyes on kids is always helpful near water,” Dr. Williams says. “A lifeguard on duty provides that extra level of protection.”

2. Be diligent about water safety.

The ocean can be unpredictable, so you need to be especially mindful about enforcing guidelines with your children about going near the water.

“When a child is younger, they should have a personal flotation device on at all times when they’re around water,” Dr. Williams says. “Older kids who can swim don’t necessarily need a personal flotation device, but they still need adult eyes on them when they’re in the water.”

When you’re shopping for a personal flotation device, or life jacket, for your child, look for ones approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Check the fit of the life jacket every time you go to the beach—it should fit snugly when properly fastened, and you should be able to pull on the shoulders of the jacket and not have it go above the child’s chin.

Train kids to face the ocean so that they can see waves coming, which will help prevent them from being knocked into the water unexpectedly. As they grow and develop swimming skills, tell them that swimming in the waves and currents of the ocean is different from the still waters of a pool or lake.

Children should use the buddy system while swimming so that they have someone with them to help or to alert others in the event of an emergency. Set limits about how far out in the water they can go, to increase your ability to reach them quickly.

Teach them how to get out of rip currents, or fast-moving channels of water, which can pull them out swiftly and cause them to panic. If they are caught in a rip current, they should swim parallel to shore or float; trying to swim back out of a current can result in fatigue, making it difficult for them to breathe and keep their head above water.

3. Don’t let down your guard around sand.

Building a sandcastle is a wonderful way to engage a child’s creativity, but you still need to be mindful about how your kids play with sand. If they are digging a hole, pay attention. It is possible for holes to collapse and for someone to become trapped in sand.

“Be cautious of when kids dig a hole or if they want someone to get into a hole,” Dr. Williams says. “They should never be left alone when they’re digging.”

Generally, holes should never be deeper than the child’s knee, and you should tell kids to fill their holes before they leave, so that someone walking on the beach doesn’t fall.

If you have a baby or toddler, deter them from eating sand, which is a choking hazard, particularly if shells or rocks are present. “Younger kids tend to put everything in their mouths,” Dr. Williams says. “Bring beach toys to keep them entertained and watch them as they crawl or walk around.”

Sand can sometimes cause rashes in children with sensitive skin, so look for a nearby shower or hose after every beach session. “Be sure to rinse kids well after playing on the beach and take off their wet swimsuit to avoid discomfort,” Dr. Williams says.

4. Wear sunscreen, and reapply it often.

A sunburn is a terrible souvenir from a beach outing, so pack plenty of sunscreen. Choose a product that is SPF 30 or higher and says “broad spectrum,” meaning it blocks UVA and UVB rays.

Sunscreen is recommended for everyone older than 6 months,” Dr. Williams says. “It needs to be reapplied every two hours, especially when you go in the water.”

It may be helpful to set a timer on your phone to remember when two hours have passed. Dr. Williams says to be thorough about covering all exposed skin, including ears and tops of feet.

“The trickiest part is often that area of skin that’s on the border of a swimsuit or shirt,” she says. “I would encourage application close to and under the edges.”

Keep infants and babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight. If you have a young baby on the beach, keep them in the shade of an umbrella or tent. They should wear a sun hat and lightweight long-sleeved clothing to protect them from the sun.

If a child does get a sunburn, use aloe vera to soothe the pain.

5. Avoid heat illness.

It’s natural to want to maximize your time at the beach, but a full day outside increases the risk of sunburn and heat-related illness.

“It’s best to go earlier in the morning or in the late afternoon,” Dr. Williams says. “Avoid times of day when the sun is at its highest,” which is usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Even if you’re avoiding the beach at midday, take steps to stay safe in the heat. Sand gets hot, so wear flip-flops or sandals to the beach, and bring an umbrella or a tent for shade. Setting up blankets or towels in shady spots can encourage kids to take breaks there.

It’s also important to drink water regularly when you’re on the beach.

“Make sure every person has a water bottle, and remind kids to drink throughout the day so that no one is getting to the point of thirst,” Dr. Williams says. At a minimum, “make sure everyone has some water when you take a break for sunscreen.”

If you have questions about your child’s health and wellness, talk to their doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.