Summer Swim SurvivalBy
In 2007 there were over 3400 unintentional drownings in America; an average of ten per day.(1) Each year, 750 young children drown while engaging in water play. Half of them will do so within 25 yards of a caregiver, and an alarming number of watchful guardians will unknowingly watch their child succumb right in front of them. Drowning is the number two cause of death for kids under the age of 15.(2) For every one child that dies from drowning, another four will receive emergency care for submersion related injuries.(1) These injuries can include life-long brain damage.
Over the next several months, there will be several news stories of children drowning in crowded pools, drowning under life guard supervision or drowning while under the watchful eye of parents. Though the instinct is to label the children’s caregivers as inattentive, or assume that they were distracted, the truth is actually more troubling. The fact is, drowning doesn’t look like drowning.
Unless you have been trained as a life guard, you are very likely to have been incorrectly programmed by a Hollywood version of the drowning scenario. The screaming, the gasping, the desperate flailing etc. Unfortunately, this depiction is grossly exaggerated. In real life, parents aren’t likely to be afforded any of these conspicuous warning signs. In fact, most drowning victims are silent, unable to call for help, unable to signal distress – even when help is nearby. The stereotypical “drowning signs” popularized on TV, are actually signals of aquatic distress. While drowning can follow aquatic distress, particularly in surf conditions, it frequently occurs without any such clues.
Flat water drownings, such as in pools and lakes, doesn’t typically include conspicuous signs of distress. According to the CDC, even when aquatic distress occurs, it is usually brief and more subtle than most people expect. Studies show that non-swimming adults can only struggle for about 60 seconds prior to submerging. Small children might only be visible for 20 seconds, or less, before disappearing. Instead of flailing or calling for help, these victims stiffen their bodies in an attempt to stretch their mouths above the water line. Desperately struggling for breath, they are unable to call for help. Hands are not stretched out above the water line, but down towards the waist, as if trying to push the body out of the water. Experts refer to these traits as the Instinctive Drowning Response.(3)
Drowning has also been known to claim children who were thought to be experienced swimmers, such as teens. Water play can be exhausting and unpredictable. It is easy for kids to near oxygen debt just by way of their activities. When something unexpected happens (a float over the head, a kid pulling from below, disorientation etc.) things can rapidly go from fun to fatal.
For parents, knowing how fast it can happen, and what it can look like, is half the battle. Most people just don’t know. Swimming where lifeguards are present is another key preventative measure. Adequate, and redundant, supervision is always important around water play activities. It’s a good idea to think twice about that ipod or novel, especially if you’re the primary guardian. And remember to talk to your kids about this subject. Don’t overestimate their swimming abilities. Practice what they should do if they realize that they are in trouble.
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1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS)
2.Borse NN, Gilchrist J, Dellinger AM, Rudd RA, Ballesteros MF, Sleet DA. CDC Childhood Injury Report: Patterns of Unintentional Injuries among 0-19 Year Olds in the United States, 2000-2006 (2008)
2. Pia F., Observations on the Drowning of Nonswimmers. Journal of Physical Education, The YMCA Society of North America, Warsaw, IN; 1974.