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Children are Quietly Drowning


When my son was a preschooler, I signed him up for swim lessons. I didn’t want to him to have technique, good form, or anything that would propel him to swim team hero. I just needed him to be able to save himself if he fell in a pool.

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Today, at age 9, I feel more confident in his skills and even feel comfortable not paying hawk-like attention for a few minutes. It helps ease my mind that our community pool is small, and I feel as if I have a “village” that wouldn’t allow a swimmer in need to go unnoticed. But, the sad fact is, even with his skills, stamina, and a whole community of people with an eye on him, even lifeguards – he still at risk because: drowning simply doesn’t look like drowning.

Tom Dolan, two-time Olympic champion, former world record-holder, and owner of Tom Dolan Swim School in Ashburn adds, “Children are never completely water-safe. Every child, regardless of age, should always have direct supervision when they are in or around the water.” This is further substantiated by the World Health Organization, who says there are an estimated 372,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide.

Dear God. As a Mom that number is terrifying. They go on to say:

Drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths (In the United States drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children aged 1- to 14-years).

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) goes on to say:

Nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male.

Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. In 2009, among children 1- to 4-years-old who died from an unintentional injury, more than 30% died from drowning.

Between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages.

So, exactly what does drowning look like? I had always assumed it would involving a lot of splashing and perhaps some arm waving. But, in fact, it rarely does. In a Fall 2006 article from ON SCENE, The Journal of US Coast Guard Search and Rescue, Aviation Survival Technician First Class Mario Vittone and Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D. sum it up perfectly in a four-pointed listed of Characteristics of the Instinctive Drowning Response. Some points that made the most impact on me:

Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help.
Why? The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid, function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.

Drowning people cannot wave for help.
Why? Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface.

From beginning to the end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick.
Why? Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20- to 60-seconds before submersion occurs.

See Vittone and Pia’s original article and full list here.

So, as mothers, neighbors, and more, how do we reduce the number of swimming-related drowning deaths? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) there are many ways. Some points that made the most impact on me:

Supervise when in or around water.
Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while in the bath and all children swimming or playing in or around water.

Supervisors of preschool-aged children should provide touch supervision.
Be close enough to reach the child at all times. Because drowning occurs quickly and quietly, adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity while supervising children, even if lifeguards are present.

Learn to swim.
Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision when children are in the water, and barriers, such as pool fencing to prevent unsupervised access, are still important.

Learn CPR.
In the time it takes for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could save someone’s life.

Air-filled or foam toys are not safety devices.
Don’t use air-filled or foam toys, such as water wings, noodles, or inner-tubes, instead of life jackets. These toys are not life jackets and are not designed to keep swimmers safe.

See the CDC/NCIPC’s complete information here.

So, as a Mom of a swimmer, one that I feel is competent and able-bodied, what do I do? First, I become a little more educated. Dolan says, “I always tell parents to remember that learning to swim is not simply a summer activity, but rather a year-round and lifelong skill that is learned through repetition. Statistics show that placing your children into formal swim lessons will dramatically reduce their risk of drowning.” He follows up with “Swimming is not just another activity to add to the weekly schedule simply for the fun of it. Learning to swim is a skill that your kids will have for the rest of their life.”

Second, I try a little harder. I put down my phone. I remain vigilant in the observation of my children at all times. And, hopefully after learning about how silent drownings are, be able to identify the signs a little better. Good luck to all the families out there as summer swim season is fast approaching.


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