Drowning does not look like drowning…

Having rescued my own two kids last year from drowning in a pool, it’s important to know what it really looks like. And guess what? It’s not the thrashing, yelling & screaming behavior we see in the movies. Drowning is often silent, with kids (or anyone) slipping quietly below the surface of the water to never again breathe. (read the rest of that adventure, below)


Drowning does not look like drowning—Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine (p.14), described the Instinctive Drowning Response like this:

  • 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.
  • This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble—they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the Instinctive Drowning Response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long—but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs—vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder

So how do you know?

One way to be sure is to ask them, “Are you all right?” If they can answer at all—they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them.

And parents—children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why!


Emelie and Oskar are okay, now.

At the time, it was a real scare, and eye opener to me. I saw it happen, as they literally walked the bottom of the pool towards the deeper end, smiling and giggling. Then they started to lose contact with the bottom, and started bobbing.

When Oskar clung to his sister, and panic started to firm its grip, I was already in motion to save them. I jumped in, wrapped my one arm around both of them, and got them out of the water. We cried together, amidst the coughing of water.

From now on, I am their lifeguard. It’s my job to make sure they survive childhood. No matter how deep the pool is, I’ll be there for them.

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