Drowning of a child is a tragically common occurrence: Two children age 14 or younger die by drowning every day, and 10 more visit emergency rooms with nonfatal, but serious brain injuries. What follows is the information that you need to know about drowning to help keep your children safe.

What is drowning?

Drowning is death from suffocation caused by water getting into the lungs and preventing oxygen absorption. It occurs most commonly when a person gets submerged in water (although it can take place in other situations).

A drowning victim is unable to absorb oxygen therefore, the level of oxygen in their blood decreases. When this level drops low enough, the victim's brain stops receiving enough oxygen and eventually, the victim will lose consciousness. At this point or before, the entry of some water into the victim's lungs triggers laryngospasm, an involuntary muscular contraction that blocks more water from flowing into the lungs. However, the contraction typically lasts just one minute. If the victim is rescued before laryngospasm ends, they have a better chance of recovering fully. But if the victim is not rescued and the brain does not receive enough oxygen for an extended period of time, the brain cells die, causing brain damage and, ultimately, brain death. Lack of oxygen can also cause the heart to stop beating, leading to the brain receiving no oxygen at all. Generally, if resuscitation efforts do not start within four minutes of when the victim stops breathing, their prognosis is very poor.

How can I tell if someone is drowning?

Although drowning is portrayed as a tumultuous event in the media, in reality, people oftentimes drown without making any commotion. However, those experiencing difficulty staying afloat tend to show certain known "instinctive drowning responses." These are:

  • Head near surface of water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back, mouth open
  • Eyes glassy, empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes wide open, face showing fear
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a specific direction, but not actually moving
  • Trying to roll over onto the back in order to float
  • Uncontrollable movement of arms and legs

Lifeguards learn these responses so they can better spot people at risk of drowning; knowing them yourself will help you more effectively keep your child safe in the water.

What factors increase the risk of child drowning?

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that certain factors elevate the danger of child drowning. These factors include:

  • Home swimming pool location - People age 15 and older drown most frequently in natural bodies of water, but children age 1 to 4 are more likely to drown in home swimming pools.
  • Absence of pool barriers - The risk of a child drowning is 83 percent higher in a pool without a fence separating the pool area from the house and yard.
  • Lack of swimming ability - Studies have demonstrated that kids age 1 to 4 who have not taken formal swimming lessons are at a higher risk of drowning.
  • Lack of close supervision - Children should be supervised at all times while swimming. A child drowning can happen even in the minute you step away to, for example, answer the phone.

What are some measures I can take to protect my child from drowning?

  • Supervise your child at all times when they are in or near the water. If you cannot supervise them, designate another responsible adult. If your child is preschool-age or younger, keep them under "touch supervision," i.e., always be close enough to reach them. Don't drink alcohol or engage in other distracting activities, such as reading, playing cards or talking on the phone, while watching swimming children.
  • Have your child take formal swimming lessons; as we've seen, formal lessons decrease a child's risk of drowning. Teach your child a healthy respect for water.
  • Learn CPR. Performing resuscitation on a drowning victim in the time it takes for paramedics to arrive could save their life.
  • Don't have your child use an air-filled or foam toy, such as "water wings," a "noodle" or an inner tube, as a substitute for a life jacket. These toys are not designed as swimming safety devices.
  • Don't allow your child to try to hold their breath underwater for a long time or hyperventilate before swimming underwater, as this can cause them to lose consciousness while submerged.
  • If you have a swimming pool at your home, install a fence around it that completely separates the pool area from the house and yard. This fence should be at least four feet high. The fence's gates should be self-closing, self-latching and outward-opening, and their latches should be out of reach of children and locked.
  • Keep child-tempting toys, such as balls, floating toys and tricycles, out of the pool area when the pool is not in use.
  • Keep a portable telephone near the pool so you can quickly call 911 in the case of an emergency.

A final note on shared responsibility

Parents can only do so much to prevent a child from drowning. They share the responsibility for keeping children safe in the pool with:

  • Other pool owners and operators, including those of public and school pools
  • Those who install pool fences and gates
  • School swimming teachers and lifeguards
  • Those who train and supervise public-pool lifeguards

These other parties need to do their part to keep kids from downing — and be held accountable when they don't.