The other day I was watching a TV show where one of the characters
was drowning. He splashed around, made a lot of noise and yelled
for help. Another character, hearing the screams, ran out and saved
him. It got me thinking about how often TV shapes our understanding
and gets it wrong. In reality, drowning is usually silent.
Splashing around and going down three times is the movie version.
In fact, parents of children who drown usually don't know their
child is in trouble until it's too late. I've seen many children
who drowned and not once have I heard of a child yelling for help.
The sad truth is that if no one's watching, a child can go
Every year in the U.S. almost 900 children drown and die. For
every child who dies another four receive emergency department care
and many of those kids are admitted to the hospital. Brain damage
is common in survivors.
In the summer, drowning deaths among children go way up as they
spend more time in and around water. As you might expect, swimming
is a high-risk activity and almost four in every 10 drowning deaths
happen when a child is swimming. Most pool drownings occur at the
child's own home and almost half of those happen within the first
six months of getting the pool. Many young children who drown in
pools were last seen inside the home, had been out of sight less
than five minutes and were in the care of one or both parents at
Some people may think children drown because their parents were
neglectful, but that isn't true. Most children who drown are being
supervised, but there is a brief lapse (less than five minutes) in
supervision. I once saw a patient who drowned while her father was
at poolside with his back turned, washing windows as she and her
sister swam a few feet away. They were 8 and 10 and both swam with
the local team. When the father turned around, the 8-year-old was
at the bottom of the pool. Her sister thought she was "playing
dead." He did CPR and the little girl was rushed to the hospital,
but she was never the same again.
Drowning is an awful, preventable tragedy. It happens quickly
and silently with permanent brain damage in a few minutes and death
following shortly thereafter. Remembering a few important things
can help your child stay safe:
• Remember that all water poses a risk. I have seen
children drown in lakes, pools and bathtubs, but also in toilets,
buckets and decorative garden ponds.
• Watch your children every moment when they are in or
around the water. If you are with a group of adults, Safe Kids USA
recommends appointing a "water watcher" and rotating with the other
• Teach your child to swim when he or she is ready (usually
around age 5), but even learning to swim will not guarantee your
• Practice "touch supervision" with children younger than
5. This means that an adult is always within an arm's length of the
• Never let a slightly older sibling supervise a younger
one around water or in the tub.
• Teach your child to never swim alone and to swim only
where there is a lifeguard present.
• Learn CPR.
• Hot tubs and spas pose special hazards because many have
suction devices that can grab hair, clothing or body parts and
prevent children from surfacing. There is also strong suction at
the drain in a typical pool. Tie up long hair, avoid loose clothing
and teach your children to stay away from drains.
• If you have a pool at your home, be sure to install a
four-sided pool fence, at least 4 feet high, that completely
separates the house and play area of the yard from the pool area.
Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with
latches that are out of reach of children.
• A power safety cover on a pool may add to the protection
but should not be used in place of the fence between your house and
For more pool and water safety information visit www.usa.safekids.org/water.
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