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What Drowning Really Looks Like

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Whether at the pool, the lake or the ocean, it is extremely important that you know how you can help prevent drowning. Unlike what many people think, drowning happens quickly and quietly with very little waving or yelling for help. When proper water safety is not being practiced, drowning can even go unnoticed.

Children can begin drowning for a number of reasons, even if they are strong swimmers. This post describes the common signs of drowning and provides and interactive lesson to practice spotting a drowning swimmer. This post also provides important water safety tips that can help keep your children safe and prevent drowning from happening.


Drowning Looks Different Than We Might Think

Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don't look or seem like they are drowning.

Why isn't a drowning child yelling for help?

It is very rare that a person will be able to call out for help when they are drowning. Because the respiratory system's first priority is to facilitate breathing, talking or yelling (a secondary function) is unlikely to occur.

Why can't a drowning child wave to the lifeguard for help?

Someone who is drowning cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. They will instinctively force their arms and hands down towards the water in an attempt to keep themselves above the surface. Drowning people cannot choose to stop trying to lift themselves above the water to wave for help. Drowning people also cannot voluntarily reach for a life ring or tube, meaning they are unable to assist themselves in their own rescue.

Drowning vs. Aquatic Distress:

Someone who IS yelling and waving may still be in trouble and should not be dismissed. They are likely experiencing aquatic distress and should be helped before this distress turns into active drowning. One difference between drowning and aquatic distress, however, is that people experiencing aquatic distress ARE able to move their arms voluntarily, meaning they will be able to assist themselves in their own rescue and can likely reach for a life ring or tube to hold themselves up.


Signs a Child May be Drowning

1. Head

  • Head low in the water with mouth at or below water level

  • Head titled backwards with mouth open

2. Eyes

  • Glassy or empty looking eyes; unable to focus

3. Hair

  • Covering forehead, eyes, or face

4. Body

  • Vertical, upright position

  • In the "climbing an invisible ladder" position (body is vertical and they are clawing at the water: moving like they are trying to climb a ladder)

  • Legs not being used

5. Breathing

  • Hyperventilating or gasping for air

6. Movement

  • Attempting to swim in a particular direction but doing so unsuccessfully/not actually moving

  • Attempting to roll over onto back


Children make noise when they play in the water. When they become silent, something may be wrong.


Practice Spotting the Drowning Child

This website can help you learn what drowning actually looks like. To begin, simply click the link. While you're watching, click on the child that you believe is drowning and learn if you correctly spotted the drowning child. This website is interactive and offers numerous videos to practice with, so if you don't get it right the first time, it prompts you to keep looking and allows you to continue practicing with new scenarios.

It is important to learn how to spot a drowning child. By doing so, you are not only better prepared to assist in the event of a drowning, but you are also better prepared to keep your child safe.


So, How Can Drowning Be Prevented?

Drowning is preventable if you enforce water safety by practicing safe water habits every time you and your children are around or near water. Whether you are at a pool, lake or ocean, these tips can help keep your children safe.

1. Learn To Swim

The best thing you can do to stay water safe is learn to swim. This includes both children and adults, and while learning to swim does not guarantee immunity from drowning, swimming is an invaluable life skill that can prevent drowning and save lives.

2. Never Leave Children Unattended

Make sure you are always keeping an eye on your children when they are in the water, and never leave children alone near water. If you are with other families who you trust and know well, consider creating a "designated watcher" rotation where you and the other parents or guardians take turns watching the children in the water. By taking turns, it is easier to stay focused on the water and the chance of distraction away from the water is reduced.

3. Read ALL Posted Signs and Warnings

Always follow any rules or warnings associated with the area around you. Different areas may have different rules, and it is important to make sure you know the rules for the area that you are in. Remember, rules and warnings are in place to keep you and your family safe, so make sure to follow them.

4. Never Swim Alone or In Unsupervised Areas

Teach your children the importance of always swimming with at least one buddy and why swimming alone is so dangerous. It is important to not only look out for oneself while swimming, but it is also important to look out for others.

5. Wear a Life Jacket

If your child is not a strong swimmer but wants to play in the water, have them wear a life jacket. To ensure safety, make sure that it is the correct size (they are NOT one size fits all!), that it is properly fitted, and that it is Coast Guard-approved. If a life jacket does not fit correctly or is not up to regulations, it is equivalent to not wearing one at all.

6. Avoid Water Wings

Air-filled flotation devices like water wings, tubes, or floaties are OK if the user is a strong swimmer that does not actually need the support of the flotation device. However, if a flotation device is needed for safety reasons like supporting a weak or non-swimmer, always use a Coast Guard-approved life jacket or life preserver. Air-filled toys are not equipped to keep a weak or non-swimmer out of danger because they easily deflate, break, or pop. These toys can also give users a false sense of security, which can play a role in drowning.

7. Look for and Listen to Lifeguards

It is safest to swim in an area guarded by lifeguards, but don't use a lifeguard-guarded area as an excuse to get out of watching your children. It is still your responsibility to constantly watch your children while they are in or near water. Having a lifeguard present just adds another layer of safety on top of your protection.

8. Don't Drink Alcohol

Do not drink alcohol while you are supervising your children. Alcohol will impair your ability to identify and react to an emergency, and can put your child's life at risk if something were to happen. It can also put your life at risk if you needed to jump in the water. Never swim under the influence of alcohol (and the same goes for drugs). Additionally, teach teens the dangers of drinking and swimming. Make sure they understand that they can be a deadly combination.

9. Check the Water Depth

It is important to know how deep the water is before anyone gets in, especially if your kids like to jump or dive. The American Red Cross recommends a minimum depth of 9 feet to avoid head injury while swimming.

10. Know Your "Too's"

Know your limits, know your children's limits, and teach your children to know their own limits. Make sure no one gets get too tired, too hungry, too thirsty, too cold, too much sun, or too far away from safety. If a child overestimates their swimming skills and hits one of their "too's," their risk of drowning increases dramatically.

11. Keep an Eye on the Weather

Swimming during a thunderstorm is especially dangerous because of lighting's deadly electrifying effect in water, but it is dangerous to swim in any level of bad weather. Get out and move away from water at the very first indication of bad weather.

12. Sunscreen, Sunscreen, Sunscreen

It is easy to skip putting sunscreen on children when all they want to do is jump in the water, but sunburn and overexposure can put children at great risk for dehydration, "sun poisoning", and exhaustion, all of which can increase the chances of drowning. Establish a routine of generously applying sunscreen as soon as you get to the water, and it is recommended that everyone waits at least 30 minutes to let the sunscreen completely soak in before jumping in.

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