Safe around water: A guide to preventing childhood drowning

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- For many people, it's hard to hear the word "summer" without thinking of pool parties and lazy days at the lake. But those water-related activities also present potential dangers for children. Below are tips and guidance to ...

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- For many people, it's hard to hear the word "summer" without thinking of pool parties and lazy days at the lake. But those water-related activities also present potential dangers for children. Below are tips and guidance to help you recognize when a child is drowning, assist a drowning child and prevent a disastrous situation.


Drowning or suffocating underwater can happen to adults and children, regardless of swimming ability.

To prevent drowning deaths, the first step is to know their causes and act accordingly. According to, common causes of drowning and near-drowning include inability to swim, panicking in water and leaving children unattended near water.

Other risk factors include electrical shock, concussion, seizure or muscle cramps while swimming and diving in shallow water.

According to the Merck Manual, groups at higher risk than average for drowning include African-American children and children from immigrant or impoverished families, males (80 percent of victims over age 1), people with conditions that cause seizures (associated with a 20-times-greater chance of drowning among children and adolescents), people with a heart arrhythmia and people who engage in dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors.

In a study of U.S. drownings and near-drownings from 2005 to 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that children up to 4 years old were most likely to drown in a pool, while children 5 and older more often drown in natural water, including while boating. Most near-drownings up to age 14 happened in pools.

Drowning can happen in an inch or less of water. Many drowning accidents could be prevented.

  • Keep young children away from swimming areas, wells, canals, streams, lakes, etc.
  • Don’t let children run around the edge of a pool.
  • Install alarms around doors and windows, if you have a pool or live near water.
  • Never leave a child alone in the bathtub, even for a short time.
  • Keep the lid down on the toilet bowl.
  • Stay within arm’s length while swimming with a young child.
  • Have rescue materials and a phone nearby when swimming.
  • Never leave toys in the pool, where a young child may try to retrieve it.
  • Empty inflatable or kiddie pools and turn them over when not in use, to prevent rainwater from collecting inside.
  • To prepare for the worst, Healthline advises taking a water safety class and learning CPR.

Life jacket safety

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, state law requires children under 10 years old to wear a properly fitted life jacket while a boat is underway, with certain exceptions. The DNR also advises:

  • Children too small to wear a life jacket should not be taken boating.
  • Fastening a boat cushion to a child car seat is a bad idea. It could trap the baby underwater.
  • Certain types of vests (Type I and Type II) can turn an unconscious person face-up in the water.
  • Inflatable life jackets may be worn by boaters age 16 and older, but are not approved for personal watercraft, water-skiing or similar sports.
  • The Coast Guard’s guide “How to Choose the Right Life Jacket” notes there are children’s life jackets with special safety features built in.

Watch for the signs

In the Coast Guard’s “On Scene” magazine, Mario Vittone wrote in 2006 that “drowning doesn’t always look like drowning.”

Approximately half of children who drown, Vittone wrote, “will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.”

The reason, he argued, is that real-life drowning doesn’t look or sound like it does in the movies or on TV. This is due to a reflexive behavior called “instinctive drowning response” (IDR).

Thanks to IDR, most drowning victims cannot kick, splash, wave or call for help. Instead, they snatch quick breaths as their mouths rise above and sink below the surface of the water, arms stretched out sideways to press down on the water’s surface. Most victims can only struggle on the surface for 20 to 60 seconds before going under.

Vittone’s tips for recognizing the signs of a drowning person are:

  • Head low in the water, tilted back.
  • Mouth open at water level.
  • Eyes closed or glassy and empty, unable to focus.
  • Hair over forehead or eyes.
  • Vertical body position, not using legs.
  • Hyperventilating or gasping.
  • Trying to swim but not making headway.
  • Trying to roll onto the back.
  • Seemingly trying to climb an invisible ladder.
  • When in doubt whether a child is drowning, ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can’t answer, Vittone said, they are probably drowning.

Saving a drowning child

According to the Merck Manual, “Some children have survived without permanent brain damage after submersion for as long as 60 minutes in cold water…Children are more likely than adults to survive after prolonged submersion.”

Healthline suggests the following steps to save a drowning child:

If the victim is conscious, use safety objects to reach them, such as life rings or throw ropes.

Enter the water to save a drowning person only if you have the swimming skills to do so safely. Rescuers who cannot swim often become additional drowning victims.

Start rescue breathing (mouth to mouth) as soon as possible if the person has stopped breathing.

Use chest compressions to help circulate oxygen in the victim’s blood.

Be careful of possible neck or spinal injuries. Support the victim’s head and avoid turning their head.

If the incident took place in cold water, remove the victim’s wet clothing and cover them in warm blankets or clothing to prevent hypothermia.

Chances of surviving near-drowning without permanent brain or lung damage are improved by young age, as well as cold water temperature, brief duration underwater, and most importantly, beginning resuscitation immediately.

“Even if a person has been underwater for a long time,” Healthline says, “it may still be possible to resuscitate them. Do not make a judgment call based on time. Call 911 and perform CPR. You may save a life.”