Drowning is Quick and Quiet, So Keep Your Eyes on Your Kids around Water

Drowning deaths increase up to 89% in the summer months

Larimer County, Colorado It’s a warm summer day and you’re at the beach, pool, or just simply near water with your kids.  Your cell phone rings and you answer it, shifting your focus from your kids to the conversation.  Good idea?  Not at all, according to Mackenzie’s Mission, Inc. and it could even be deadly.  Children can get into trouble in a matter of seconds when around water, so Mackenzie’s Mission, Inc. recommends that parents actively supervise – with their eyes on their kids at all times – and use additional layers of protection when children are in or near the water.

In the U.S., Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death for children ages 1-14 years old. Nationally approximately 750 children ages 14 and under die each year due to unintentional drownings, and on average, there are an estimated 5,016 injuries to children after near-drowning incidents each year.

“Kids drown quickly and quietly,” said Trista Roecker, founder of Mackenzie’s Mission, Inc. “A drowning child cannot cry or shout for help.  It is important to remember that simple steps save lives – supervise children when they are in or near water, learn water safety skills like swimming and CPR and for home pools and spas, use barriers and anti-entrapment devices. The most important precaution for parents is active supervision. Simply being near your child is not necessarily supervising.”

In an article in the U.S. Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine; Dr. Pia, former independent public safety professional and former life guard, described the Instinctive Drowning Response (What drowning looks like visual aid):

  • Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs.
  • Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  • Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. 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.
  • From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Mario Vittone (2010), a leading expert on immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival, and safety at sea maintains that a person who is actively yelling for help and splashing in the water may be experiencing aquatic distress.  He goes on to say that aquatic distress does not last long and is not always present prior to the onset of the Instinctive Drowning Response.  Furthermore, Vittone states that individuals in aquatic distress are able to assist in their own rescue by reaching for, or grabbing, rescue devices.  Vittone says that “sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning” (para. 7).  He expresses that a drowning victim may look as though he or she is simply treading water and looking up.  An effective method to determine the individual’s status is to ask the person if he or she is okay.  If no response is received, immediately provide assistance.

To help keep kids safe this pool and outdoor recreation season, Mackenzie’s Mission, Inc. in partnership with Safe Kids Larimer County, recommends these precautions:

  • Always actively supervise children in and around water. Don’t leave, even for a moment. Stay where you can see, hear and reach kids in water. Avoid talking or texting on the phone, preparing a meal, reading and other distractions.  Avoid drinking alcohol while supervising children.
  • Never swim alone and stress with your children the importance of never swimming alone.
  • Strongly discourage children from prolonged breath holding, breath holding contests, and prolonged underwater swimming as these can and have caused drowning and sudden death from passing out while in the water (called Shallow Water Blackout). As a swimmer reduces both oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, unconsciousness and death occur quickly, without warning.  Physical exertion, repeated hyperventilation and breath-holding increase the risks of Shallow Water Blackout.
  • Talk with teenagers about ‘risky behavior,’ including diving or swimming in unfamiliar water, and the dangers of alcohol or drug use when engaging in recreational water sports or swimming.
  • If you have a pool or spa, or if your child visits a home that has a pool or spa, it should be surrounded on all four sides by a fence at least four feet high with self-closing and self-latching gates that lock. Studies estimate that this type of isolation fencing could prevent 50 to 90 percent of child drownings in residential pools.
  • Don’t rely on inflatable and noninflatable swimming toys such as “water wings” and pool noodles; these toys should never be used in place of U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets. If your child can’t swim, stay within an arm’s reach of the child.
  • Know how to swim and enroll your kids in swimming lessons.  Swimming lessons will not make your child immune to drowning, but it is an important skill for both adults and children to learn. There is no substitute for activesupervision, not even a USCG approved life jacket.
  • Learn infant and child CPR. In less than two hours, you can learn effective interventions that can give a fighting chance to a child whose breathing and heartbeat have stopped. Contact your local hospital, fire department or recreation department for information about local CPR classes.
  • Keep rescue equipment, a phone and emergency numbers nearby in case there is an emergency.

Even a non-fatal drowning incident can have lifelong consequences. Children who survive a non-fatal drowning may have brain damage, and after four to six minutes under water, the damage is usually irreversible. Although 90 percent of parents say they supervise their children while swimming, many acknowledge that they engage in other distracting activities at the same time – talking, eating, reading or taking care of another child.

“An actively supervised child is in sight at all times with your undivided attention focused on the child,” said Trista Roecker.  When there are children in or near the water, adults should take turns serving as the designated ‘Water Watcher,’ paying undivided attention to the swimmers. Visit www.safekids.org to download a free Water Watcher badge.

Always remember, “children playing in the water make noise.  When they get quite, you get to them and find out why”  (Vittone, Drowning doesn’t look like drowning [Blog post], 2010, para. 7).

For more information about drowning and water safety, contact Safe Kids of Larimer County at 970-495-7504 or visit www.safekids.org or www.macksmission.org


Vittone, M. (2010, May). Drowning doesn’t look like drowning [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://mariovittone.com/2010/05/154/

Vittone, M., & Pia, F. A. (2006). “It doesn’t look like they’re drowning” How to recognize the Instintive Drowning Response. On Scene The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue, p. 14. doi:COMDTPUB P16100.4

Safe Kids Larimer County works to prevent accidental childhood injury, the leading cause of death and disability to children ages birth to 14 years old.  Safe Kids of Larimer County is a member of Safe Kids Worldwide, a global network of organizations dedicated to preventing accidental childhood injury.  Mackenzie’s Mission, Inc. was founded in 2011 by Trista Roecker, the parent of a non-fatal drowning victim, and works to reduce the number of fatal and non-fatal drowning that occur each year.