The other day I was watching a TV show where one of the characters was drowning. He splashed around, made a lot of noise and yelled for help. Another character, hearing the screams, ran out and saved him. It got me thinking about how often TV shapes our understanding and gets it wrong. In reality, drowning is usually silent. Splashing around and going down three times is the movie version. In fact, parents of children who drown usually don't know their child is in trouble until it's too late. I've seen many children who drowned and not once have I heard of a child yelling for help. The sad truth is that if no one's watching, a child can go under.
Every year in the U.S. almost 900 children drown and die. For every child who dies another four receive emergency department care and many of those kids are admitted to the hospital. Brain damage is common in survivors.
In the summer, drowning deaths among children go way up as they spend more time in and around water. As you might expect, swimming is a high-risk activity and almost four in every 10 drowning deaths happen when a child is swimming. Most pool drownings occur at the child's own home and almost half of those happen within the first six months of getting the pool. Many young children who drown in pools were last seen inside the home, had been out of sight less than five minutes and were in the care of one or both parents at the time.
Some people may think children drown because their parents were neglectful, but that isn't true. Most children who drown are being supervised, but there is a brief lapse (less than five minutes) in supervision. I once saw a patient who drowned while her father was at poolside with his back turned, washing windows as she and her sister swam a few feet away. They were 8 and 10 and both swam with the local team. When the father turned around, the 8-year-old was at the bottom of the pool. Her sister thought she was "playing dead." He did CPR and the little girl was rushed to the hospital, but she was never the same again.
Drowning is an awful, preventable tragedy. It happens quickly and silently with permanent brain damage in a few minutes and death following shortly thereafter. Remembering a few important things can help your child stay safe:
• Remember that all water poses a risk. I have seen children drown in lakes, pools and bathtubs, but also in toilets, buckets and decorative garden ponds.
• Watch your children every moment when they are in or around the water. If you are with a group of adults, Safe Kids USA recommends appointing a "water watcher" and rotating with the other parents.
• Teach your child to swim when he or she is ready (usually around age 5), but even learning to swim will not guarantee your child's safety.
• Practice "touch supervision" with children younger than 5. This means that an adult is always within an arm's length of the child.
• Never let a slightly older sibling supervise a younger one around water or in the tub.
• Teach your child to never swim alone and to swim only where there is a lifeguard present.
• Learn CPR.
• Hot tubs and spas pose special hazards because many have suction devices that can grab hair, clothing or body parts and prevent children from surfacing. There is also strong suction at the drain in a typical pool. Tie up long hair, avoid loose clothing and teach your children to stay away from drains.
• If you have a pool at your home, be sure to install a four-sided pool fence, at least 4 feet high, that completely separates the house and play area of the yard from the pool area. Use self-closing and self-latching gates that open outward with latches that are out of reach of children.
• A power safety cover on a pool may add to the protection but should not be used in place of the fence between your house and the pool.
For more pool and water safety information visit www.usa.safekids.org/water.