How to Spot a Kid That’s Drowning


Drowning is one of the country’s biggest child killers. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second highest cause of unintentional deaths in children under 15.

Almost half of those drowning deaths will occur less than 25 yards from an adult.

But here’s the real kicker.

In ten percent of those cases the adults will watch it happen, oblivious to what’s actually going on.

So if you thought you knew what a kid drowning looks like, you may want to think again.

I’m going to run through what you need to be looking out for, what to do in response, and how to prevent it in the first place.

So let’s get you prepared for heading out to the pool or the beach with your kids this summer.

Why Drowning Doesn’t Look Like You Might Think  

Drowning doesn’t look like it does on the TV or in the movies. There isn’t much (if any) yelling, waving, or splashing.

Firstly, this is because the body is programmed to take care of breathing first, speech second. If a child is battling to stay afloat they physiologically cannot yell as the body is trying to maintain airflow into the lungs.

Secondly, drowning kids cannot wave for help because their body’s natural instinctive drowning response is to force their arms out laterally and push down through the water’s surface.

This action allows their mouths to get above the water once more to gulp in more air.

Because drowning tends to happen with the body in the upright position, there’s no evidence of the strong leg kicking that’s happening underneath. And as I’ve just explained, the arms spend the majority of the time beneath the water trying to push it down.

Therefore, in the event of drowning, there’s very little splashing.

Of course, this is not to say that a kid who is thrashing around and yelling for help doesn’t need immediate assistance. It just means they are in a state of aquatic distress, which can last up to 60 seconds before the process of actual drowning begins.

For that reason, aquatic distress is much easier to spot than drowning.

So what are the signs to look out for when a child is potentially drowning at either the beach or in a pool?

How to Spot a Kid who’s Drowning

There are several signs that a child may be drowning and they may be exhibiting all or only one of them.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • Silent Panic – As touched upon before, a kid that is hyperventilating will not be able to scream out for help. Look at a kid’s face for panic or concern. Their facial expression will often give you the best indication of what’s happening.
  • Head Titled Back – Kids will naturally tilt their head backwards to raise the mouth as high as possible. If their head is titled back and water is covering most of their hair and face, then it’s likely they’re in trouble.
  • Eyes Glassed Over – If a child’s eyes looked glassed over, or unable to focus, it’s usually a tell-tale sign that they are experiencing drowning.
  • Arms Pushing Downward – Look for children making downward pushes or making a motion to grab something that isn’t there beneath the water. This is part of their instinctive response to push themselves up to get their mouths above water.
  • Treading Water/Bobbing Up and Down – Kids drowning are rarely (if ever) on the move. If you can see a child trying to move without making any headway, they could be in trouble. Remember that fatigue and cramps are often causes of drowning, preventing children from continuing to swim to their intended destination.

How to Respond to a Kid Drowning

Once you are certain someone is drowning, alert lifeguards or any other appropriate response teams on site immediately.

If you a competent swimmer, go ahead and save them yourselves, but only when it is safe to do so.

In an ocean setting there are often dangerous currents which could endanger your life as well as theirs. Think calmly and carefully about the situation before taking action.

If available, you can toss a flotation device for the child to grab on to, this will help them keep their mouths above water, stabilizing their breathing whilst waiting for help to arrive.

The most important thing is to arrange help either by yourself or other reasonable parties as fast as physically possible as you will not have long to act.

How to Prevent a Kid from Drowning

No kid is infallible when it comes to drowning.

But there are several steps you can take to reduce their chances of encountering a drowning scenario.

Firstly, get all of your children swimming lessons if they haven’t had them already. The better they are as a swimmer, the less likely they are to drown.

Next, when at the pool or the beach, take turns with your partner to watch your kids in the water. Do not rely solely on a lifeguard. Although it’s very rare, they can make mistakes.

They are your children, therefore make them your responsibility.

If you are not 100% confident in your child’s swimming ability or the specific situation (such as a large ocean swell at the beach), take a much closer watching brief, staying within touching distance.

This way if anything does start to go wrong you can immediately grab them and pull them out of the water.

Another helpful method is to pair kids up, that way one of them can yell and wave if the other is getting into difficulty.

Finally, teach your children to stay well away from pool drains or filters since the suction from these devices can cause real issues for small children underwater.

Keep your child and yourself safe from drowning

Drowning is a very real threat to your kid’s safety this summer, so it’s important to be able to spot the warning signs before it’s too late.

Remember if you do spot someone drowning, only attempt to save them if it is safe to do so.

By endangering yourself, you will make lifeguards or any other emergency services choose between saving you or your child.

By taking note of my prevention tips above you can greatly reduce the chance of your child coming to any harm in the water. Swimming lessons are perhaps the best way of preventing your child from coming into any difficulty.

What are your tips when it comes to helping kids avoid drowning? Have you experienced any near misses with your children?

If you feel you can help others, share your stories in the comments below.

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