What Drowning Really Looks Like

May is water Safety Month and as we transition from school to summer, we begin to plan for fun times with the kids. Swimming typically tops the list, but with swimming comes the threat of drowning.  350 children under the age of five drown in pools each year nationwide. Among unintentional injuries, drowning is the second leading cause of death to ages 5 and under after motor vehicle accidents. In some Sunbelt states such as California, Florida and Arizona, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death to children under five.

What’s more disturbing is that around 50% of those drownings will happen within 25 yards of a parent or adult. In 10% of those drownings, the adult will actually watch the child drown and have no idea that’s what is happening. What’s the reason?  We don’t know what drowning really looks like, only what we see on tv.

What should we be looking for?

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

What we have seen on tv- the thrashing and yelling- is NOT what drowning looks like.  They may just look like they are treading water. You can be sure by simply asking them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all – they probably are alright. If they don’t reply, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And as parents we know that kids make noise when they’re in the water. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Some more facts about the Instinctive Drowning Response:

1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Until a person can breathe, they can’t speak.

2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water.

3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements.

5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.


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