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Little girl playing in outdoor swimming pool jumping into water on summer vacation on tropical beach island. Child learning to swim in outdoor pool of luxury resort.

The Hidden Signs of Drowning

It’s something no parent wants to think will ever happen to their child, but drowning is a leading cause of death in young children. More children ages 1-4 die from drowning than any other cause of death, except birth defects. For children ages 1-14, drowning is the second leading cause of death. Although rates are higher in children, adults are also at risk of drowning.

How to Recognize Drowning Immediately

It is important to understand drowning in order to really know how to prevent it. Recognizing that a person is drowning is not easy.  TV and movies would have us believe that a person in trouble will be thrashing their arms around and screaming for help.  It is actually the exact opposite.  The following are signs that a person may be drowning:

    • Head is low in the water and their mouth is at water level and open
    • Eyes appear glassy and they cannot focus.  If you ask them a question they will not be able to answer you
    • Their hair is over their forehead or eyes
    • They are vertical and are not using their legs
    • They may be trying to swim in a direction without actually going anywhere or they are trying to roll over on their back
    • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

Facts About Drowning

    • Infants are more likely to drown in bathtubs or buckets.  Since they are top heavy if they fall in they cannot get themselves out.
    • Toddlers, ages 1-4, are more likely to drown in a swimming pool.
    • Older children are more likely to drown in rivers or lakes.
    • Nearly 90% of deaths occur during brief lapses in supervision
    • Inflatable devices or “water wings” are not appropriate flotation devices and they DO NOT prevent drowning.

Tips For Drowning Prevention

    • Children should never be left alone near water.  The supervision needs to be constant.  Adults should take turns, if possible when supervising the children.
    • Empty and put away that pool after each play session   A study in the journal Pediatrics in 2011 showed that of homes with portable pools, kids under 5 were at the greatest risk.  Seventy-three percent of 209 fatal drownings were in the kid’s own yards. (1)
    • Always wear a life jacket when boating (the kids will look to you as an example)
    • Buy life jackets that are approved by the United States Coast Guard.
    • Watch out for distractions:  the phone, computer, etc,
    • Pools should be surrounded on all 4 sides with at least a 4-foot tall fence that has a self-closing and self-latching gate that opens out from the pool.  The latch should be at a height that the children cannot reach
    • Supervising adults should be CPR trained and there should be a phone nearby.
    • Adults should not be consuming alcohol when they are monitoring children in the pool.
    • Practice “touch” supervision for children 4 and under; meaning the child is always within arm’s length and the adult has their full attention on that child
    • Swimming lessons are helpful but should never be seen as “drown-proofing” a child.

Setting Family Ground Rules

Lastly, in regards to older kids, as we know many of them love to zoom around on jet skis.  Be aware that these vehicles can go up to 60mph and that you are eight times more likely to be hurt on one of them versus in a motorboat.  Wave jumping is the biggest culprit for fatal jet ski accidents. (2)

Consider setting these rules for your family:

    1. No one under 16 years old should operate a personal watercraft
    2. No wave jumping
    3. Don’t use personal watercraft if under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medications which may alter your level of alertness
    4. Don’t use in swimming areas

It can take 60 seconds or less for a person to drown so prevention and quick action are key.  So we as parents need to be on our game and help our kids enjoy the water safely this summer.

Here's a guide for selecting life jackets and a guide about drowning prevention.


1.) Pediatric Submersion Events in Portable Above-Ground Pools in the United States, 2001-2009


Original post date: June, 2014. Revised: June, 2022.

Laura Denning, CPNP, BSN, MSN
Laura Denning, CPNP, BSN, MSN

Laura Denning is a certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner at CHI Health West Broadway Clinic. To schedule an appointment with Laura, please visit her provider profile.

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