How can you tell when a person is drowning?

During the summer many people try to beat the heat by cooling down at local pools or beaches. For the majority, the time spent in the water is a fun-filled occasion for children and parents alike. Unfortunately, that same environment can be one of devastation when a child drowns often in the company of family and friends. Florida leads the country in drowning deaths of children ages 1–4.
According to the FL department of Health “Annually in Florida, enough children to fill three to four preschool classrooms drown and do not live to see their fifth birthday.”

This a startling and scary statistic. In the past, the way I’ve tried to protect my children was by avoiding the pools and by limiting their exposure to open bodies of water. I know realistically that’s not the best method and over the last few years have enrolled them in swim lessons hoping that they’ll be given the tools to survive in the event they were accidentally submerged in water.

kids swim Collage

My son and daughter in their age appropriate swim classes

Although they haven’t quite learned how to swim yet, they’re getting more comfortable with the water and holding their breaths. I’m still very over protective of them and watch them very closely to catch the slightest sign of distress in the water. I’ve even decided to take swim lessons myself. My Facebook post sums up my very first lesson.FBPost swimming

Notice I said I watched my kids closely to catch the slightest sign of distress. I figured that if someone was in trouble, they’d be screaming, their hands would be flailing or waving for help, splashing lots of water and in full panic. It turns out that a scene like that is mostly depicted in the movies and not necessarily in real life. I read an article recently that gave me a totally new perspective on what happens when a person is drowning.(You may have read this or a similar article.)

Apparently, there’s an Instinctive Drowning Response that occurs when people are drowning.

  • Except for rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to speak. They’re too busy trying to catch their breath
  • Drowning people cannot wave for help. Their natural tendency is to extend their arms out and press down on the water’s surface in order to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  • From beginning to end a drowning person’s body will 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.”

It’s literally a matter of seconds before they drown. The following video shows a downing 9 yo boy in a crowded beach seconds before being rescued. Thank God for keen lifeguards. Notice how close he was to other people and no one knew he was drowning.

There are signs of drowning that you can look for when a person is 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

It’s also suggested that if you suspect a person might be silently drowning, swim over to them and ask if they’re ok. If they’re able to answer you, chances are they’re ok. Rule of thumb for kids: When kids are playing and having fun in the water, they’re usually making lots of noise. If your child is quiet, check on him immediately.

Things can go terribly wrong even with the ability to swim. I know that for me and my children this summer, we are making small steps to be better prepared in and around water.

  • Can you swim?
  • Would you be able to identify a drowning person?
  • Have you ever had to rescue a drowning person?
  • Have you ever come close to drowning?



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56 thoughts on “How can you tell when a person is drowning?

  1. Michelle

    This was really informative and I am definitely sharing, Hope. We have a pool and when the kids were younger, I jumped in several times to get other people’s kids to safety. One thing to remember when you are at a party, or you’re having one, it’s deceiving thinking there are tons of people around to watch the kids, but the reality is there may be no one watching!
    Michelle recently posted…Celebrating the 4th of July with FriendsMy Profile

  2. Britton

    Hope, this is a great resource and very helpful! I always think that the waving of the arms and yelling are signs that someone is drowing, but this video shows me otherwise. I am a swimmer, but my daughters aren’t. They are in their second session of swimming lessons right now because it’s important that they learn water safety while they are young. Good for you for taking swimming lessons!
    Britton recently posted…Motivational Monday: Diet and AnxietyMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Thanks Britton. I think so many of us thought the same thing about peoples reaction when drowning. It’s that you’re a swimmer and is starting early with preparing your girls.

  3. veronica

    My mom’s youngest sister drowned when she was two years old. My mother has always been very cautious with us while around water. We took Eliana for her first pool experience the other day. She was in a floatie that has a seat in it and if she wasn’t in the seat we were sitting in a very very shallow area but still holding her up right. I heard children(babies) can drown in just a couple of inches of water if they fall face forward and are unable to get up. Thank you for the information!

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Oh no! so sorry to hear about your mom’s sister. Babies can surely drown in a few inches of water. It sounds like you were being super cautious too. You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids.

  4. Tamara

    So scary. So informative. My kids don’t know how to swim yet but you can bet I will be on them like a hawk. My parents raised us with a big pool and they were very protective. I used to think they were overprotective but now I know there’s no such thing where water is concerned. And my mom did have to save my brother’s friend once because she was watching closely.
    Tamara recently posted…Piece Of My Heart.My Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      I so agree. There’s no such thing as being overprotective when it comes to water. And I’m pretty sure that’s what saved your brother’s friend…you’re mom being overprotective.

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Oh no!! That has got to be so devastating. I can’t even imagine. I think getting those cartoon versions out of our heads is the first step to recognizing when a person is in trouble.

      Thank you Lisa and Ashley for sharing this post and helping to get the word out.

  5. Joi

    WOW Hope! This is amazing and alarming. I know of children that have drowned here locally but I wasn’t aware it was so common. I definitely would be looking for scenes out of a movie. You have taught me so much here today and I am so grateful. We have a trip planned to the beach with my God Daughter this summer and this is very good timing. You know I will be sharing this!
    Joi recently posted…F2BD #3 Beach BumminMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Thank you Joi. Children drowning is a lot more widespread than many of us imagine…and it’s so unfortunate because we don’t always recognize when they’re in trouble. I think being armed with this information will at least make us more alert. Enjoy your beach day with your God daughter. i’m sure you’ll be watching her like a hawk too 😉

  6. Kita

    I can’t swim at all and I grew up around the beach and a lake was in the front of our home when we moved to the suburbs so you would think I would know. I was suppose to take the kids this summer to learn but this summer went by faster than I originally thought so no swimming. Great tips even f I learn how to swim I will need something for my hair cause I am not natural and chlorine and perm is not a good mix
    Kita recently posted…A change is gonna comeMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      I’m totally clueless about the perm and chlorine…for the 20 years I had a perm…I never really got in the pool. Mostly because of my fear of the water but I still didn’t have to worry about

      I hope your kids are able to get those lessons soon.

  7. Chris Carter

    Oh what a critical informative post here Hope… my stomach is in knots watching that video. Thank you for this. We are at the pool often and I would have never thought that boy was drowning by the looks of it. I am now much more aware having seen that and read your post. Thank you!
    Chris Carter recently posted…Devotional Diary: PrayerMy Profile

  8. Toya

    This post is everything!!!!! I can swim but I avoid it because I don’t like me in a swimsuit aaaand my hair whew I don’t have time for all that. However I occasionally take my daughter swimming. She has not yet mastered swimming so I’m glad you posted this!!

  9. Angela Gilmore

    Thanks for posting this Hope, I am going to share it with everyone I know. Stew Leonard’s always has commercials here in CT about how his son died, he thought his wife was watching him and she thought he was watching him. Whenever we get together with the family and all the kids, we always assume someone else is watching. When it comes to water I watch Jack like a hawk!
    Angela Gilmore recently posted…Vegan resources – What I’ve learned so FarMy Profile

  10. Alexa (Kat Biggie)

    This was terrifying to read – my children drowning is probably one of my biggest fears ever. My oldest can swim now, my middle is learning, and the youngest is still a long way off… thank you for these tips, they are excellent! Sharing!
    Alexa (Kat Biggie) recently posted…A Lifechanging MomentMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      That has been one of my biggest fear too Alexa. I’m praying my kids fully learn soon…although I will still watch them like a hawk. Thanks for sharing this post.

  11. Sherelle

    Oh my Gosh! Those statistics have really opened my eyes to the process of drowning! I never learned how to swim, and always played around in water no higher than waist deep. I wanted my fiance’ to teach me, but he is impatient with me(I may not be the calmest student)lol Great tips on how to tell if someone is in distress while swimming!
    Sherelle recently posted…Wedding Wednesdays: Dealing with the P’sMy Profile

  12. Shanique

    These are some scary statistics. Whats even scarier is that a few month aback I read about something called “dry drowning”. I had no idea that you could drown like that and while I had been leery of open bodies of water before I am even more scared of them now.

    You never quite know what can happen but its best that you have lessons under your belt. In the end that might make the difference more than anything else.
    Shanique recently posted…I am not my pastMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Yes Shanique! I saw a news report few years back of a kid who drowned hours after he left the pool from dry drowning. Totally changed the way I feel about my kids in the water. Scary.

  13. Michell

    Hey Hope!! Thanks so much for sharing! Yes, I learned how to swim when I was younger and it really is like riding a bike…you never really forget how to do it. We’ve had pools before and we made sure the kids knew how to swim before they stepped foot in it. We have a pool at our home now, because the kids are older, my biggest fear now is having my 3 year old grand niece over. You can never be too careful around water, it is nothing to play with. We just had a good samaritan try to rescue a teenager here at Myrtle Beach, but unfortunately both of them drowned…so sad! Have a wonderful rest of your week my friend! Btw…Joi, you are too funny girl! :-)
    Michell recently posted…“Doing YOU WELL Wednesday #23…I’m baaack!!My Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      What a horrible story… that is just so sad. Unimaginable. It’s great that you and your children are swimmers. Maybe this would be a good time to teach your grand niece water survival (just in case). Like you said, you can never be too careful. So nice to see your face in the place :)

  14. Alison

    Oh wow! I couldn’t look at the video; brings back memories of schoolmates who drowned. In school, they offered swimming classes at the beach in the summer. We got cute handmade certificates showing all the different techniques we had mastered. Although I’m not scared of the water, I don’t venture out too far. I’m always attentive to others around me because you never know. And many of the signs of drowning that you mention I would never have thought of.

    Thanks for sharing this info, Hope. It’s very timely.
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  15. Rum Punch Drunk

    I really hate the water simply because I almost drowned when I was 11 years old in a swimming class. I was learning to swim but I was so short that the shallow end of the pool came up to my lips so I constantly felt water going into my nose and mouth. Not a good start. Then some stupid kid grabbed me from behind and I went under and couldn’t get back up. All I could hear was the sound becoming more muffled underwater. Someone got me out and from that experience I cringe whenever I’m near water.

    I think it’s a great idea that you and the kids are learning to swim though. You just never know when an accident can happen and it may not always be in a fun social setting. And you never know when you might be called upon to save someone’s life using your swimming skills. I’m going to return to watch the video because the browser I’m using won’t show it.
    Thanks for all the tips, which are very important.
    Rum Punch Drunk recently posted…Mystery of InspirationMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      That’s horrible that that happened to you. I’ve fallen in a pool before and that muffled underwater sound is scary when it’s not welcomed.
      I hope I never have to rescue anyone. I want to swim mainly for exercise and my kids for fun. But I agree that you never know and I’d definitively like to be prepared.
      I hope you were able to watch the video. It helps to put things into perspective.

  16. KalleyC

    Wow, this was very informative indeed! Living near the beach, we do hear about people drowning and being pulled under all the time. Not to mention that the shelf near me is very steep. Like you, I just keep my kids away from the water, but I do want them to learn how to swim.

    I would have never guessed that a drowning victim wouldn’t be like the movies. It’s a great way to observe people around us, especially children to prevent them from a accidental death.
    KalleyC recently posted…Home School ReadinessMy Profile

    1. Hope@DefiningHope Post author

      Kids learning to swim can be quite scary too, but I think it’s great in a pool environment, I’m leery about the beach though. We all just have to be super vigilant.

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