The second-leading cause of unintentional death in children ages one to four is drowning, according to the CDC.
This is because the majority of kids under six who drown in a pool were not supposed to be in the water, said Dr. Sarah Denny, an Ohio-based pediatrician, American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and former lifeguard.
“We know that at this age they are mobile, they‘re fast, they’re curious, but they have no sense of danger whatsoever,” Denny said.
As pool party and beach season kicks off this summer, so do the number of kids that drown: Two-thirds of drowning deaths for children in America happen between May and August.
To keep your kids safe, drop your assumptions of how well you think a child should swim and how you think someone will typically call for help if they are in the water. Here are the signs of distress to watch out for and myths about drowning that just aren’t true.
The biggest misconception: That a child will yell or wave when they need help. They are more likely to drown silently.
If you realize a normally talkative child is suddenly silent, check in on them. Unfortunately, drownings often happen when adults nearby are unaware that a child is in danger.
The common pop culture representation of drowning is not what it usually looks like, but the idea is pervasive. In a 2016 survey by Safe Kids Worldwide, about half of U.S. parents of young children said they believed that if their child was drowning nearby, they would hear splashing, crying or screaming.
But too many times, drowning occurs silently.
“It's very quiet, and very quick.”
“People in distress in the water rarely yell or wave for help, because they are spending their time trying to keep themselves afloat,” said B. Chris Brewster, chair of the national certification committee for the United States Lifesaving Association and a former lifeguard chief in San Diego. “If you are going to wait until someone yells ‘Help!’ or waves their arm, you may completely miss the person struggle and submersion.”
Denny noted that it’s much more common for children to drown silently.
“They are just trying to get their mouth above the water. They don’t have extra energy to wave or yell,” she said. “It’s very quiet and very quick. As a former lifeguard and having seen this happen, I can tell you that if you are not looking for it, it’s hard to necessarily notice.”
That’s why it is so important to keep eye contact on children and be within arm’s length of them in water at all times, as multiple water safety guides recommend adults do for beginner swimmers.
Drowning in kids can appear as an obvious struggle to stay afloat. “The problem is that can be a very brief period of time,” Brewster said.
Denny said subtle drowning distress can also show up as looking panicked and bobbing up and down in the water.
Other signs can include an unfocused gaze, closed eyes, hyperventilating, a mouth at water level, hair over eyes, a person in vertical position not using their legs in the water or appearing to be climbing an invisible ladder, according to ocean rescue experts.
A sudden disappearance is also a big clue. If you can’t find a kid and you are near a body of water, check the water ASAP.
“If you are somewhere where there is water or a pool and you are looking for a child and you can’t find them, check the pool first,” Denny said.
Even if you are within sight of a pool, don’t assume you will always see a person submerged under it.
“People think you can easily see beneath the water where the person is, but because of light refraction and even a little bit of wind on the water if it’s an outdoor pool or reflection from an overhead light if it’s an indoor pool, it can be very difficult to see below the surface of the water,” Brewster said.
Experts recommend these simple steps to save a child’s life.
The most important and effective step to reducing fatal drowning is to prevent children from getting into this kind of dangerous scenario in the first place.
1. Assign dedicated watchers every time there is a pool gathering or beach outing. “When everybody is watching, nobody is watching,” Denny said. “We see this all the time: A whole group of adults are around and a child drowns, and it’s not anyone’s fault, but it’s just [that] everyone assumes everyone else is watching.”
An assigned watcher should not be drinking or distracted with doing a separate activity like reading a book or playing cards, even if a lifeguard is present, according to Water Safety USA organization. Their full-time job does not end until people are out of the water or they hand off responsibilities to another person.
To prevent fatigue, Safe Kids Worldwide recommends setting a 15-minute shift of responsibility before the watcher passes off duties to the next assigned person.
2. Have barriers in place. Don’t let curious young children fall into places where they shouldn’t. For kids who don’t swim and would not be expected to be in the water, “the issue isn’t normally the signs of drowning,” Brewster said, noting, “In that case, the major issue is ensuring the pool is fenced.”
To prevent kids from getting into a pool without adult supervision, safety experts recommend four-sided fencing with a self-latching and self-closing gate that will separate the pool from the house and yard. Detailed guidelines for what safety barriers in home pools should look like are available online from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
3. Don’t assume that just because a child has had a swim lesson that they can’t drown. Yes, swimming lessons can definitely reduce a child’s chances of drowning, but they are not a guarantee against it. 60% of parents surveyed by Safe Kids Worldwide said they would not worry as much about their child drowning if their child has had swim lessons.
If a child swims well in a pool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will swim excellently in a lake or an ocean. A child may have also forgotten how to be a good swimmer during the COVID pandemic, Denny said.
“Kids have not been in swimming lessons because of COVID; they may not have had the same water exposures that they had in summers previous to COVID,” she said, noting that it’s key to have realistic expectations of your child’s swimming abilities, as kids may think they can swim better than they do.
4. Learn CPR. If you happen to be the only bystander, knowing CPR can make the difference between life and death for a child.
“Knowing CPR and being able to start bystander CPR has actually been shown to improve long-term outcomes in children,” Denny said. “Even if you don’t know how long the person has been in, start right away.”
Look up trainings in your community, or check out the American Heart Association, which has online and in-person trainings.