Would You Be Able to Tell If a Child Was Drowning?

Not according to this expert. Here, the surprising truth about what to look for. (It’s not what you expect.)

You’ve seen enough old Baywatch reruns to know what it looks like when somebody’s drowning, right? I mean, now that pool season’s here, and oceans and lakes are warming up enough to finally be come-hither, you’d be able to tell if the 10-year-old a few yards away was going under for the last time—wouldn’t you?

Not according to this article at Slate.com by water-safety expert and retired Coast Guard instructor Mario Vittone. Accidental drowning is the number two cause of death in children age 15 and under, according to Vittone. (Number one is auto accidents.) And yet the majority of the 750 or so young people who’ll drown this year will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.

The trouble, Vittone says, is that a drowning child looks nothing like what TV has taught us to expect—flailing limbs, splashing water, anguished cries for help. Actual drownings are almost silent, according to Vittone, because our “instinctive drowning responses” kick in, with the body concentrating forces on breathing and trying to leverage the mouth to stay out of the water. It’s a fascinating read that lays out precisely what to look for—and listen for—when you’re swimming this summer. Kids who are playing in water make noise, Vittone says. If you can’t hear them, that could be a clue something’s wrong.

Vittone makes a point of adding that lots of people do flail, shout, and scream to be rescued when they’re in trouble in the water—and you should help them. But they’re not in imminent danger of drowning, whereas someone whose instinctive drowning responses have kicked in is. Once those responses are activated, the body will sink within 20 to 60 seconds, slipping silently into submersion … and death.

Vittone goes into deeper explanations of what happens in the throes of the instinctive drowning responses, and there’s even a video of a drowning boy. (He’s rescued, thank God.) This could be the most important thing you read all summer. I know I learned what to look for to save someone’s life.