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Swimming and Drowning: How Drowning Really Looks?

swimming and drowning

Summer time brings thoughts of swimming — and drowning potential. The reality is that drowning does not look like drowning, at least not the way the movies show it, so it’s important to have an idea of what it does look like.

First and foremost remember this, “Remember – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why,” says Mario Vittone, an expert on water safety and a marine safety specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard

I recently had a pool experience with my daughter which scared me and ended with new rules about pretend play in the water.

My 5-year-old daughter, typically a good swimmer for her age, tired while in the pool. She yelled for help (and this is where the kids’ pretend play got in the way as they sometimes pretended they needed help from each other). I was up at the ready in case. She wasn’t flailing, her kick board was within arms reach, and I saw she was moving on her own to the side of the pool. When she reached the side and started crying, I knew how scared she had been and that she thought she had been drowning. She was strong and she took part in her own rescue. And it made me realize drowning may not look like I’ve always seen it shown in movies.

swimming and drowning

I recently saw a couple of posts on Facebook about this very thing, how drowning doesn’t look like drowning. These articles made me realize I have to remain even more aware when my children are swimming.

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The Hard Facts

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, drowning is the leading cause of injury-related death among children between 1 and 4 years old, and it’s the third leading cause of death among children.

According to the CDC, children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1 to 4 years old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning. Among those 1-14, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death behind motor vehicle crashes.

What Does Drowning Look Like Then?

So if drowning doesn’t look like drowning — if they aren’t flailing their arms and screaming — what does it look like?

Dr. Francesco A. Pia, a past life guard of 20 years, says if they are flailing, they are in aquatic distress. They are not drowning but they realize they are in trouble and still have the mental and lung capacity to call for help. This is the point where my daughter was; she still had the mental capacity to kick herself toward the side just a few feet away.

When they lose that capacity — when they are really drowning — they don’t flail. Drowning people instinctively move their arms as if they are trying to pull themselves up from the water. They use just enough energy to get their mouth out of the water to take a breath, usually tilting their head back in that effort. They appear upright in the water but rarely are they using their legs to tread water.

An adult can remain struggling like this for 20 to 60 seconds. Children, obviously, can struggle for less time than that.

Dr. Pia describes the instinctive drowning response in more detail like this:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below 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. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  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.

(Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14))

Our Job as Parents When Children are Swimming

Keep your eyes on your children in or around water and keep your ears open.

Mario Vittone says, “Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up.”

One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. “Remember, children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

For more drowning stats, click here. Stay safe on the water this summer!

Ever hear of dry drowning? Neither had I until recently.


By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2021 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

This post was originally published June 2013 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

© amie durocher

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