Drowning is probably every pediatrician’s worst nightmare. It is currently the fifth leading cause of accidental death. An average of 700 children drown each year: about 2 each day. Most are under 4; 80% are male. For every death, there are 5 more who drowned but survived, commonly with irreversible damage to their brains.
Infants and toddlers drown in bath tubs, buckets, toilets – all you need is about an inch of water, just enough to cover their nose and mouth. Older children drown in pools, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Never, never, never leave any child alone for even a moment near open water, whether it is an ocean, a bathtub, or a water bucket. All it takes is one moment of inattention for a child to slip away. If there is open water, you need to be within touching distance and focused on your child. The story I have heard over and over is, “We were right there, just talking, but nobody noticed anything until we realized he was gone.” Keep your kids in sight, and don’t let yourself get distracted. Be especially careful at the end of the day, as the water empties and people are gathering up their belongings and leaving. Children will want to swim just a minute more, or will attempt to go back for that last toy floating in the water.
Pools should be fenced in and closed off with a self-latching gate at the end of the day, and all the toys should be put away. Life vests are fabulous for a parent’s mental health and relaxation (swimmies and floaties are not life jackets). Life preservers and a shepherd’s crook should be placed obviously nearby wherever kids are swimming.
Sign your kids up for swimming lessons, even if you are afraid. A middle schooler or teen will never admit to their friends that they don’t know how to swim. They will fake it, sometimes unsuccessfully. Don’t, however, trust a young child to remember his or her swimming lessons when they need them. If they are startled or scared, they will forget everything they learned and just sink to the bottom.
Know what to look for. In real life, drowning does not look like it does in the movies. It is not impossible to miss someone drowning right in front of you if you do not know what you are seeing. They do not shout for help and wave their arms. They tire, and panic. A drowning child might never make a sound, but quietly slip under the water. An older child might keep themselves above the water for a while, but their head might be low in the water, with their mouth at water level, or perhaps with their head tilted back. Their eyes might be blank or closed. They will sometimes hang vertically in the water without paddling their legs, or appear to paddle with no purposeful movement. A drowning person is very easy to miss if you are not vigilant; and easy to help if you are.
Somebody should know CPR—why not you? Your local fire department or hospital will have classes. Knowledge and the ability to act can save a life.
Swimming is a necessary skill, fun, and excellent exercise; it is also a time for close observation and care.