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What drowning really looks like


Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

We were at a backyard BBQ. It was end of August, hot and humid in our part of the world at that time of year so the kids were all in the pool. Pregnant with my second, I sat on the edge of the pool with my feet in. Our first born being so young, my husband was sitting next to me.


The parents of many of the other children were over by the food and drink, socializing. This is not blame, we were living in another country and in a very different culture where children grow up by the ocean and play in it daily without parental supervision. Children there play in the streets and go to the store by themselves at a very young age.


So there we sat supervising our little one having decided already that if a child were to need assistance my husband would go in and I would continue to watch our little one.


Within fifteen minutes a child of about six sunk, she just went down like a rock. As she came back up to the surface there was no sound coming from her. Her mouth was open and her eyes wide with fear, but she was not yelling for help or making eye contact with anyone. Her focus was simply upwards, towards air. Her mouth used only for gasping for breath as she bobbed up and down in the water.


I grabbed my husband's arm and pointed to the child. He looked at me confused so I pointed again and said "there, GO!". Luckily married to a former lifeguard and swim instructor, he has had drilled into him what it looks like when a child is drowning so once he saw what I was pointing at he recognized that the child was in trouble and went in after her. As he lifted her up out of the water she began to sob with relief, and hearing her crying, her parents came over to take care of her.


What is important here is not the story per se but the behaviours of the child while drowning. The movies would have us believe drowning is a loud and raucous affair with yelling and calling for help, lots of splashing arms and eye contact, but this couldn't be further from the truth.


Drowning doesn't look like drowning, in fact it looks so different that there are cases all over of parents missing the fact that their child was in distress simply because they don't know what to look for. I don't want this to be you, so here are the things you need to be watching for:


No one wants to picture their child in distress but I'm going to implore you to picture your child or children exhibiting these behaviours. It will help you recognize it if it ever happens.


1- Drowning is quiet.Humans are not able to inhale and speak at the same time. When a person is drowning they cannot yell for help as all faculties are focused on getting oxygen into the system. As a secondary function, speaking gets overruled by breathing. A child who is drowning is no different. When children are playing in the water they are making noise. If the pool gets quiet there is a problem. Do not expect your child to yell for help. They won't once they are truly drowning.


2- Head tilted back, eyes glassy and empty. If the child's eyes are open they will be vacant and glassed over. You may see terror in your child's face. There is also the possibility that their eyes are closed, there may be hair over their face with no indication that it is noticed by them and no attempt to fix it. The child will not be making eye contact with anyone and though it may seem they are looking at a place where there is safety, they are not perceiving it. Your child will look like they are extremely afraid but will not be able to focus their eyes on anything. Calling their name will seldom illicit a response.


3- Mouth bobbing alternately above and below the water. The child may be audibly gasping for breath. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. Their mouths are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When drowning peoples' mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.


4- Child is in the drowning position.A person who is drowning has their feet straight down and their arms are flapping up and down to keep their head up. This is known as the drowning position. It is important to remember that young children cannot tread water, so if their feet are straight down for more than a few seconds they will exhaust themselves and go under. Drowning people cannot wave for help as a phenomenon called the Instinctive Drowning Response removes drowning peoples' ability to control arm movement. It may look like your child is trying to climb a ladder.


5- A drowning person cannot save themselves. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.


So what can be done?


My next article will cover what to do when a child is drowning, you don't want to miss it so if you are not already on my mailing list make sure you get on it!


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2014 by Swim to Safety  

Photographs by www.jtc-photography.com