Drowning: Know the Signs; Save a Life


 The only thing that causes more deaths in children ages 1-4 than drowning is birth defects and with all children up to age 14, drowning is the number two cause of accidental death (car accidents remain first).   In this article, we will run through common misconceptions about water safety and dive into the signs of drowning.

Common Misconceptions

I would hear/see my kids if there was trouble.

Five years ago, a co-worker sat in a presentation I gave on signs of drowning.  That very weekend, she looked out the window at her backyard pool and recognized a child in the midst of the drowning process.  Had she not been in that presentation, she may have missed an opportunity to change the outcome of that drowning.

There is a vital need to understand drowning and how it can happen in clear sight of numerous individuals.  Each summer, videos surface of drownings showing either children completely unsupervised or surrounded by people.   BBC dropped a video (linked here) in 2015 and remains one of the more disturbing and telling videos because of the number of times it is clear that someone is watching this child as he drowns.  Sadly, this is not unique to this sole video.

As a technique, we often utilize videos online to show real situations for lifeguards in training.  The below video posed the challenge of identifying the child in trouble before the lifeguard reacts.  This portrays how quickly trouble can happen, as well as the often overlooked idea that inner tubes, water wings, and inflatables give the false sense of security.  It takes seconds for one to fall off or pop, leaving a non-swimmer subject to a compromising and dangerous position.  A good rule of thumb is to look for US Coast Guard approved flotation devices.


Unlike the glamorized nature of the movies, a drowning person cannot yell; they are doing everything in their power to get air. Although a child may simply be playing, signs such as “climbing the invisible ladder,” bobbing, not making any forward or backward progression, eyes looking at the water’s surface from slightly below the water are all what lifeguards are trained to spot.

The more you can train your eyes to recognize drowning, the more situations become clear and preventable. Slate released an easy to follow video of the signs to look for.  Watch and share. We share articles on recalls, car seat safety, children being stuck in hot cars in the summer, allergy information, gun safety, on baby-proofing the house and so forth and so on.  Please share articles on water safety.  With the stats being as high as they are, more knowledge needs to be circulating on this topic.

My child didn’t drown in the pool… he is okay, right?

Drowning is drowning.  The terms of “near drowning” and “dry drowning” have been eliminated to stop confusion.  Starfish Institute has a great analogy to help explain this concept: if you have a heart attack, you have a few outcomes – death, life as it was prior or life now modified.  Despite the end result, you had a heart attack.  Drowning is the same.  Where the process is interrupted often determines the outcome.  It can be fatal, it can be non-fatal and life resumes as normal or it can be non-fatal and life does not. 

“Any person – adult or child – who has been in or under the water and has symptoms of difficulty breathing, excessive cough, foam or froth in the mouth, or isn’t acting right immediately or within a few hours of being in the water has had a non-fatal drowning and should seek care from a doctor.  Symptoms usually appear immediately, but may be delayed by a few hours or get progressively worse.  Onset or worsening of symptoms usually occur within the first 8 hours or submersion.” – Starfish Aquatic Institute 

If your child was in the process of drowning, go to the hospital right away to be checked out. Do not wait it out to see how the night goes. No matter how diligent a parent we are, we cannot see into the lungs, test the oxygen in the body, or tell if they are just exhausted from the struggle or due to the fact they may still be in the drowning process. Sometimes the only symptom could be the child had an accident (soiled themselves) at an age they normally would not or were incredibly tired after the struggle. ABC dropped a story in 2008 describing how these signs were present in the case of 10 year old Johnny Jackson.

My child is a good swimmer now – I don’t need to worry anymore.

Ideally this would be the case, but it is important to know, not one single person is water safe. Capabilities of swimming do not equate to being immune to tragedy in the water.

One of the recent hot topics in swimming is the concept of hypoxic training (breath control) and shallow water blackout.  Once a swimmer becomes competent, it can be enticing to play the game of “how long can you hold your breath under water.” Shallow Water Blackout threatens strong swimmers of all ages and comes on without much warning, as your body loses its ability to trigger the need to breathe.   

As a child who played these games, I hear loud and clear the arguments of “but we did it and we’re fine.”  We also rode in the front seat with no seat belts, but with education comes change and acknowledgement that maybe there is a better way.  One organization, www.shallowwaterblackoutprevention.org, has made it their mission to spread awareness of this phenomenon. The video and picture below (both from their website) show and breakdown shallow water blackout.


I will only take them where there are lifeguards, then I’m good.

No more than three hours after creating the draft of this very blog, my family went to a popular summer pool destination.  Multiple guards scanned the overly crowded facility.  From the shallow area, I noticed a child in the deep end with seemingly no adults around. He would submerge, then would work hard at the top for some time, make minimal progress, then go back under.  From my angle, he appeared distressed.  

Dragging my own child by his puddle jumper, I moved as quick as I could to the child, grabbed his hands to hold him up and asked him if he was tired and needed help.  He panted out, “yes.” It is worth noting, he was surrounded by adults and children alike – all playing – all oblivious to his struggle.  It took all his energy to stay above water.

While I appreciate this nod of confidence to our local guards, the first line of defense is the parent.  Given the nature of a busy pool environment, a child can slip below the surface before a guard sees him.  By the time a guard scans, sees a child start to struggle, blows the whistle, realizes they are okay, tells another to not run and then scans back…your child may have slid in the water and gone under.  Believe it or not, a person submerged can quickly become impossible to see.

So, how do I keep them safe in the water?

My best unsolicited advice – first, recognize you cannot make a person “safe” but only make them “safer.”  I know, semantics, but it is also a good thing to keep in mind.  Second, get them in lessons.  Teach them over and over to ask before entering. Buy some life jackets for extended water play when they cannot swim. Get in the pool with them; help them feel the water and learn to use their bodies to float.  Learn to swim yourself if you cannot. Talk to them about what can happen if they do not understand the safety of water. Start at an early age. Teach them to respect the feeling of exhaustion and take a break (adult swims are awesome breaks). If you have a backyard pool, gate and lock it.  Secure covers.  Take the time to learn about water safety.

And by all means, enjoy the pool!  Be in there with your kiddos, play, make your memories.  Just teach them to be safe doing it.


    • Sandy, thank you so much for spreading the word about drowning. The more information out there, the better. StarFish Aquatics has released great information regarding terms and stats; they are now leading the way for much of drowning research and have been a large part of creating updated protocol for lifeguards. Here is an article that may help w/ some of the terms, since it’s all changing so quickly:


      Please keep spreading the word on water safety! Thank you for commenting and checking this out.

      Take care,


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