I recently came home from a holiday in the South West of France in a popular surfing spot called Biarritz. As you can well imagine as the daughters of a swimming teacher, my two girls love being in the water - my older daughter, who is just two, made a beeline for the sea as soon as we hit the beach.
Biarritz is on the Atlantic coast, and people travel for miles to surf on the Côte des Basques or at the nearby Grand Plage, where the waves often reach 6-8 feet. There are designated zones for swimming in, and lifeguards watch over the beaches too. But I've had my fair share of mishaps in that sea whilst boogie boarding, taking surfing lessons or just paddling and body surfing, and a British rugby player tragically died when a wave hit his spine and bowled him over just up the coast from Biarritz just last year.
We want to instil a love of the water in our children which is why we bring them swimming, but at the same time we need to instil a respect for the ocean to help keep them safe. After a lot of thought I've come up with a list of tips for keeping children safe in the sea.
1. Pick your moments
Make sure there are life guards on duty and make sure they are watching the sea vigilantly. Check the wave and tide timetables (try http://magicseaweed.com) and choose a time when the waves aren't too huge and the tide is out.
2. Keep it shallow
Toddlers and babies are more than happy to build sandcastles, splash and paddle in the wet sand left behind when the sea goes out. Stay with them, check that the sea is on its way out not in and keep an eye out for rogue waves - the sea can surprise you.
3. Stand your ground
If you are taking a toddler to paddle in the waves, stay shallow and make sure your feet are firmly planted. Never let a young child go into waves alone, whether or not they're wearing armbands. It's not the danger of them going under the water that's the problem - it's the danger of the force of the water that could hit them or sweep them out. It is easier to take a second adult with you so your child has two hands to hold. Don't go out any further than you feel comfortable - this is not a time to go out of your comfort zone.
4. Keep your eyes open
Watch the sea in front of you constantly - never take your eye off the waves. Also watch out for surfers and boogie boarders who may have been swept up in a wave and entered the swimming area by mistake.
5. Hold an arm, not a hand
Little hands can squirm out of ours - or be pulled out if your toddler is swept up by a wave, so I prefer to hold my daughter's upper arm or wrist so I'm in control and she can't let me go. Make sure your hands are free from other things - leave the toys on the beach.
6. Beware of the pull. as well as the push
We're mindful of the waves coming in, but the pull of the sea as it heads back out could easily knock a toddler over. Don't let them get pulled out - I like to keep my daughter slightly behind my legs for this reason.
We want to emphasise staying safe and teach a respect for the sea, whilst allowing them the chance to experience the waves too. Jumping waves and playing in the sea are brilliant activities for the beach and teach genuine water confidence, but no one is as strong as the ocean - and it's important that our children learn this from an early age.