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The First Step of Drowning Prevention Is Knowing What It Looks Like

When the summer heat hits, many of us head to our favorite swimming spot. Amid the splashing kids and many distractions of a busy waterfront, fun can quickly become a risk. Drowning takes about 4,000 lives in this country every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s the No. 1 cause of accidental death among children under 5. It can happen in seconds, and children who drown often are out of sight for less than five minutes, according to a Safe Kids Worldwide report.

Coupled with its speed, drowning often looks different than many people realize. There may not be any splashing or cries for help.

Dr. K. Dionne Posey, the National Medical Director of Clinical Operations, Population Health Solutions and Prevention at Optum, shares what is more likely to happen. “Drowning rarely looks like it is portrayed on TV, with dramatic screaming and flailing. It is quicker and quieter than we realize.”

A person in trouble may have their head above water one minute and be submerged the next, without anyone noticing.

View Transcript

Dr. Posey offers additional advice on how to help reduce risks associated with drowning and help keep kids splashing safely.

Pay attention
“I can’t stress enough the importance of constant surveillance,” Dr. Posey says. “Don’t get distracted in a book, a chat or a call.” The CDC advises that those watching preschool-age children in the water provide “touch supervision,” which means being close enough to reach the child at all times. That’s true even if a lifeguard is present.

Assign responsibility
“People often assume that someone else is doing the supervising, so it’s important to be very intentional about who is watching each child. If you will not be present to watch your own child, pick a point person and assign responsibility,” Dr. Posey says. If kids are in the water, make sure they use the buddy system, especially when there is a group of mixed swimming abilities. Consider matching up experienced swimmers with those who may be less skilled.

Provide swimming lessons
Start exposure to water safety early, urges Dr. Posey. “Children as young as 12 months — babies, really — should be taught basic lifesaving maneuvers,” she advises. “Anything that gives them a little bit of extra time to breathe, like flipping over on their backs, floating and moving through water, can save their lives.” This can be a challenge in colder environments, but many recreation and community centers offer low-cost or free indoor lessons geared to kids’ attention spans.

Obey warning signs at beaches
Pay attention to color-coded signs that alert you to rip tides and dangerous weather. “You can’t always see the currents in open water, and cold temperatures can lead to hypothermia, which shocks the body and leads to rapid exhaustion,” Dr. Posey says.

Keep floats away
It may not be a good idea to use rafts, inner tubes and water wings in open water. “Floaties can give children a false sense of security. They’ll jump farther and higher and faster and become overconfident in their swimming abilities,” Dr. Posey warns. Use certified life jackets when doing water sports like kayaking and boogie boarding.

Drowning can happen anywhere, even in just a few inches of water. Dr. Posey shares, “I’m a mother, and this cause is near and dear to my heart. I wish I didn’t remember all of the little faces of victims I’ve seen on the news, but they all stand out to me. And the parents always say, ‘How could this happen so quickly?’”