It’s nearly beach season! While enjoying the beach and water is one of summer’s greatest pleasures, we should all take a moment to think about water safety. This is especially important for young children –drowning is the number two cause of accidental death for kids 15 and younger (vehicle accidents are number one). About 750 children drown each year.

The worst part is that about half of these drownings will occur while the child is within 25 yards of a parent or some other adult. In some of those cases, the adult will actually see the child drowning. This seems impossible, but it happens regularly.

The problem is that most people don’t know what drowning really looks like. We’ve all seen drowning on TV or movies: the person splashes, yells, waves their arms above their head, and so on. In the real world, that’s not what happens. Instead, people in trouble go into what’s called the Instinctive Drowning Response. This response is different than what most of us expect, and most notably, there’s no yelling or waving to alert others.

A drowning person fights for life by getting in a vertical position in the water and trying to push upward with their arms. Their arms are extended out to the sides to create maximum thrust upward. This is the drowning person’s last-ditch effort to keep their head above water so they can breathe. However, using their arms in this way means the person cannot wave to others. Their heads tend to pop up above the surface of the water, then drop below it again, as they fight for air.

Drowning people usually tilt their heads upward so the mouth doesn’t gulp water as they pop up. Their hair may be covering their face, and their eyes are either closed or unfocused. Unfortunately, drowning people are too busy just trying to draw breath to call for help from others. This inability to yell or scream, or even get their arms above the water, is what causes people around them to not realize the danger.

People only have the stamina to fight for breath this way for 20 to 60 seconds, so immediate rescue is critical. Otherwise, the person tires too much to keep struggling and slips under water for good. This happens quickly and quietly, not in the noisy and visibly frantic way we might expect.

Experts recommend that if you see someone who just looks like they’re treading water, ask them if they’re okay. If they answer, they probably are. If they can’t even answer and give you a blank stare, they may be drowning quietly.

Children having fun in the water splash and make noise. Drowning children usually don’t. It goes against conventional wisdom, but we actually need to be most concerned when they get quiet in the water. That’s when we need to get to them right away and figure out whether they’re okay. Their lives could depend on it.

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