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drowning hand
Drowning doesn’t look like (TV) drowning

It was hot. Mid-July. And the pool where I was working was crowded with kids yelling and splashing. You could smell hot dogs grilling at the concession stand. I was about to rotate to the deep end when a 5 year old child I had been monitoring slipped through their inter-tube float. His head didn't reappear. Less than 10 seconds later, I was in the water, pulling his body to the side. 

His mom, stunned at the commotion around her, didn't even know I had jumped in to grab her child until I was pulling his body onto the sidewalk. She was happily sitting on the side of the pool, legs dangling in, casually watching her trio of kids playing in front of her. She didn't even realize he was drowning.

Of course, she immediately felt guilty not recognizing her child needed help. "He was right there!" she told us. "I didn't know! He didn't even yell for help!"

Her child was okay and went on to swim some more that afternoon. But both she (and her son) learned a valuable lesson that day: drowning does not look like what you think it does. Drowning does not look like TV drowning.

I've been a certified lifeguard and certified water-safety instructor since I was 16. Over the past two decades, I've rescued at least 30+ kids (and a few adults) from the pool. Most of the rescues I've performed, especially in an "official" capacity as a lifeguard, the parents were less than 10 feet away from the child in distress or the child was within arms length of the pool wall. The story I previously illustrated is one of many.

I bet you're asking, "But how could that possibly be? How could that parent not notice that their child needed help?"

It's because, again, Drowning does not look like TV drowning. Not even close.

Drowning is not crazy, thrashing arms.

Drowning is not super loud yelling, "Help!"

Drowning is not hysterical splashing.


Thanks to the news outlets in recent years, as well as moms who've become outspoken on social media, most of us now know that drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4. Boys are two times more likely to drown than girls, and 2/3 of fatal drownings occur between May and August. 

We know these facts. We talk about these facts. We share these facts on social media in cute little graphics. But the fact remains that most people have no idea what true drowning looks like. And unless you're a certified lifeguard, the chances are you probably won't recognize the signs, even if you are less than 10 feet from your child. 

Here's what you need to know:

Drowning is silent.

It's almost motionless.

It's quick.

Drowning people, especially children, only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs. Twenty seconds. But actual death may take 3-4 minutes. This is why it's not only crucial to know the signs that someone is drowning, but to also know CPR for adults, children and infants. Anyone can take classes and get certified to perform CPR! If you own a backyard pool, you need to know CPR.

There are typically 5 (quick) stages to drowning:

  • surprise
  • involuntary breath holding
  • unconsciousness
  • hypoxic convulsions
  • (clinical) death

This is not what we've been conditioned to think drowning looks like. TV shows and movies show dramatic splashing. Lots of yelling for help, and some wild and crazy waving. Ask a kid to pretend to drown, and this is exactly the portrayal they'll show you. We've been conditioned to believe that drowning is almost "exciting," and some bay-watch looking lifeguard will glamorously jump to the rescue. 

This is not real life.

People, especially children, who are drowning, are physiologically unable to call for help. We are designed to breathe, and in layman's terms, we're unable to yell for help if we can't even breathe.

The mouths of drowning people sink below and then reappear above the water. They barely have time to gasp for a breath before bobbing back under. This bobbing in and out of water can look like swimming -- but it's not. It's the body under "surprise" and "involuntary breath holding."

child drowning

Just as drowning people can't talk or yell for help, they are unable to flap their arms or wave for help. Their body, again, is physiologically unable to move toward a rescuer or the side of the pool.

From the beginning to the end of drowning, people, especially children, remain vertical in the water, with barely any kicking. They struggle briefly on the surface of the water before becoming completely submerged and unconscious.

More visual clues your child is drowning:

  • open mouth, trying to gasp for air
  • head low in the water with their mouth at water level
  • eyes closed    - or -
  • eyes open with a glassy stare & not focused or blinking much
  • not using legs
  • try to swim but not moving foward
  • arms out vertical, trying to push down to lift mouth out of water
drowning graphic

And remember, even strong or experienced swimmers get fatigued and tired, leading to drowning accidents. Swim team members, water polo teams, divers, and even lifeguards doing their own workouts need guarded! Last summer, I jumped in and rescued a girl from our own backyard pool. It wasn't because she couldn't swim -- in fact I had taught her swim lessons myself --  but it was because she had literally jumped off the diving board 15+ times in a row and her body was exhausted. She just couldn't make it the last 2 feet to the wall. So even if you think your child is a strong swimmer, someone needs to be watching them swim the entire time they are in a pool, lake, or ocean.

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