Drowning Doesn’t Actually Look Like Drowning

Drowning victimFriday, June 21st is the official first day of summer (mother nature may have missed the memo) and with summer comes the end of the school year and the beginning of family vacations to sunny destinations, the ceremonial opening of back yard pools and public beaches. Hooray! My kids love playing in the water, any water from bathtub to ocean counts and they are all in. I usually keep my posts light  but this one tackles the more serious topic of water safety. While its no one’s favourite topic, it’s so very important for all of us. 

While I knew that accidental drowning is the second leading cause of death in children 5 and under (behind car accidents), I did not know that roughly half of all children who drown do so within 25 yards of a parent or another adult. What?!?! Why? How is that possible? Well, have you ever seen someone drown? I certainly have not, and apparently neither have most of us. And that is exactly why. Dr. Francesco A. Pia explains that real life drowning looks absolutely nothing like the dramatized drowning we see on tv and in movies and even in public service announcements (but is that really all that surprising?). Real drowning involves far less dramatics. Unlike that picture right there, there is no purposeful arm-waving or terrified cries for help. Rather, real life drowning looks an awful lot like… well, not drowning.

Dr. Pia coined the phrase “Instinctive Drowning Response” and explains it as the way our bodies are programmed to act when we start to drown. We have no control over this behaviour and can’t consciously override it. The instinctive drowning response is characterized by the following behaviours as outlined by Dr. Pia in the US Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

(Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14))

Here is a video taken by Dr. Pia during a drowning rescue. It shows just how un-dramatic a real life drowning is (don’t worry… its not gruesome and it is a rescue). During the video Dr. Pia explains that in a younger child the involuntary arm movements may be even less splashy and  look more like the dog paddle.

Twenty to Sixty Seconds. That means that in the time it takes to refresh your drink, check the chicken on the grill, or send a text message a child could drown without so much as a peep to alert you to their struggle. Terrifying! Vigilance around water is the only proven way to prevent accidental drownings in young children. Swim lessons are a great idea for many reasons (my oldest absolutely loves her swimming classes and they’re a great way to keep her in the water all year round) but according to the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Red Cross, swimming lessons (even those that claim to teach toddlers how to float to avoid drowning) are simply not reliable enough in children under 4 years old. (Source). Another great idea is an Infant and Child CPR Course. I don’t know about you, but if I see my kid in trouble I want to feel confident taking control of the situation. You can sign up for an Infant and Child CPR course right here at Fab Baby Gear. Let’s all have a safe and swimmy summer!!

Thoughts? Experiences? Leave your comments below!



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