If you’re a parent (and maybe even if you’re not), you will agree: Children are grimy little beings. Whether it’s from a mealtime mess, playing outdoors or touching god-knows-what at daycare or school, they're going to get dirty. And when they do, they need a bath.

While bath time can be fun and soothing for your child, parents need to take steps to make sure it's safe. Drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). An average of 87 children die each year in in-home drownings, according to a CPSC study. Among the victims, 82 percent were younger than 2, and more than 80 percent of the incidents involved bathtubs or baby tubs. Understanding the dangers is key to avoiding them. And the most dangerous of all is the most obvious: water.

Related: Injury: The Number One Killer of Kids in the US

Water smarts

The CPSC says to never leave a young child alone in or near water — not even for five seconds. Keep your child within arm's reach. If you have to go to another room, pick up the child and take him with you.

When bathing a child, you want the water warm but not hot. The Mayo Clinic recommends a bath temperature of about 100 degrees with a depth of 2 to 3 inches of water. Test the water before putting in the baby using your elbow or forearm, which are more sensitive to temperature than your hands. If you don't trust your judgment, you can buy an inexpensive bath temperature gauge or little rubber duck that says "hot" if the temperature is too high. Set your hot water heater temperature below 120 degrees to prevent accidental scalding.

Related: 6 Ways to Prevent Scald Burns in Kids

Choosing a tub

For infants, many parents use a small, free-standing tub, which often has an area for baby's head to rest. Line the bath tub or sink with a rubber mat or towel to keep the baby from sliding around. The Mayo Clinic advises keeping at least one hand on the baby at all times, which is easier if you have everything you need right in front of you, including a wash cloth, dry towel, mild soap and a cup of clean water for rinsing.

As a baby gets bigger and no longer fits in the sink or an infant tub, many parents transition to using bath seats placed in a regular bathtub. After recording 174 deaths over a 26-year period, the CPSC in 2010 set new standards for these seats and, at the time, said no seat on the market complied with those standards. In addition to having issues of stability, perhaps the biggest problem with these seats is that they provided parents with a false sense of security. They are not a substitute for a parent's hands. If you do want to use a seat, do not use a hand-me-down, and find one in compliance with today's safety standards. Before you buy, make sure it feels sturdy, is the right size for your child and has a no-skid base.

When you transition to using the bathtub, there are still more precautions to take. Yes, it might be convenient to leave your toiletries around the tub. But once kids are big enough to grab them, they'll need a different home. Keep razors, hair removal cream and cleaners out of kids’ reach.

Rules for supervision

As your child becomes a toddler and is able to sit in the bath by himself, you should still be within arm's reach. And bath time should continue to be supervised until a child is at least 6, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Here are some other bathtub precautions:

  • Have a non-slip mat or decals on the bottom of the family tub.
  • Keep your child away from the faucet and always sitting down.
  • Be sure all electrical items are unplugged and away from the water.
  • As soon as the bath ends, drain the tub.
  • Keep the floor dry and have a mat to prevent anyone getting out of the tub from slipping.

Related: 5 Dangerous Baby Products to Avoid

Mitch Lipka is a consumer columnist and product safety expert. He was the 2011 recipient of the "Kids Best Friend Award" from Kids In Danger for his commitment to reporting on children’s product safety.