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Most Adults Don’t Recognize a Drowning Child

As opposed to what Hollywood would lead us to believe, drowning is a quiet, easily overlooked affair

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As opposed to what Hollywood would lead us to believe, drowning is a quiet, easily overlooked affair. In real life, drowning often does not include the splashing and screams that people intuitively expect to see if someone is in trouble. As a result, adults may be standing a mere 10 or 20 feet away from a drowning child and not realize it. Slate reports on the importance of clearing up this misconception:

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.

To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2 cause of accidental death in children, ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents)—of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult.

In 10 percent of those cases, an adult will actually watch the child die without realizing it. Professional lifeguards are trained to spot the tell-tale signs of drowning, but Slate argues that this basic training should extend to all people who spend any time at pools, lakes or the beach. Some warnings to look for:

  • No screaming. Drowning people cannot breathe, and breathing is required for calling out for help.
  • No waving. When drowning begins, people instinctively press downwards against the water to try and prop their bodies towards the surface.
  • No control. Instincts take over when drowning, meaning people lose control of their muscles and cannot wave for help or paddle towards safety.

Here’s what drowning looks like:

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