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.
1. They 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.
2. They can’t wave for help either. A drowning person instinctively extends her arms to the sides and presses down to lift her mouth out of the water; a child may extend her arms forward. She can’t use her arms to move toward a rescuer or reach for rescue equipment.
3. They remain upright in the water, with no evidence of kicking. She can struggle for only 20 to 60 seconds before going under.
4. Their eyes are glassy, unable to focus, or closed.
5. Their face may be hard to see; hair may be over forehead or eyes.
6. Their Head is low in the water, with mouth at water level; head may be tilted back with mouth open. A child’s head may fall forward.
7. They are quiet. Children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.
8. They don’t seem in distress. Sometimes the most important indicator that someone is drowning is that she doesn’t look like she’s drowning. She may just seem to be looking up at the sky, shore, pool deck, or dock. Ask her, “Are you all right?” If she can answer at all, she probably is. If she returns a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to her.