Drowning is the second-most common cause of accidental death in children ages 1 to 14 (just behind motor vehicle accidents). In a 2004 study by a national safety group, 90 percent of children who drowned did so while under the care of an adult or a teenager. In many cases, the study suggests, that person had a momentary lapse of attention.
But the fact is that often those watching don’t know what to look for—because drowning doesn’t look like drowning. To ward off a tragedy in the making, watch for these signs that someone is in trouble.
She can’t call for help
She has to be able to breathe before she can speak. When a person is drowning, her mouth sinks below and reappears above the surface of the water. There isn’t time for her to exhale, inhale, and call out.
He can’t wave for help either
A drowning person instinctively extends his arms to the sides and presses down to lift his mouth out of the water; a child may extend her arms forward. He can’t use his arms to move toward a rescuer or reach for rescue equipment.
She remains upright in the water
There is no evidence of kicking either. She can struggle for only 20 to 60 seconds before going under.
(This woman almost drowned in her own car. Here’s how she managed to survive.)
His eyes are glassy
They may also be unable to focus or simply closed.
Her face may be hard to see
Her hair may be covering her forehead or eyes.
His head is low in the water
His mouth is at water level, or his head may be tilted back with the mouth open. A child’s head may fall forward.
She is quiet
Children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.
He doesn’t seem in distress
Sometimes the most important indicator that someone is drowning is that he doesn’t look like he’s drowning. He may just seem to be looking up at the sky, shore, pool deck, or dock. Ask him, “Are you all right?” If he can answer at all, he probably is. If he returns a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to him.
Before heading out to the water, make sure you also know the signs of delayed drowning.