June 27, 2013

Melissa Arca: Drowning is silent and preventable

Summer inevitably paves the way to days spent poolside, on the lake, at the beach or hiking along rivers. And as we flock to the waterways, you've no doubt noticed articles and blog posts galore about water safety and drowning prevention.

Summer inevitably paves the way to days spent poolside, on the lake, at the beach or hiking along rivers. And as we flock to the waterways, you've no doubt noticed articles and blog posts galore about water safety and drowning prevention.

That's because it's important.

Yet, every year we learn of the tragedies – the accidents that literally happen in the blink of an eye. Drowning remains the second most common cause of accidental death in children younger than 15 years old, right behind motor vehicle accidents. Every year, drowning kills more toddlers (ages 1-4) than anything but birth defects. About 10 people die every day in the United States as a result of accidental drowning.

According to the California Department of Public Health, half of all drownings in children younger than 5 occur in backyard pools. And in many cases, children who drown are within 25 yards of a parent or another adult.

That statistic, to me, is quite staggering. These children were technically being "watched" but were not recognized to be in trouble until it was too late.

The reason? Drowning is silent. It's not the splashing, yelling or calls for help that are so commonly depicted on television and in movies.

Mario Vittone, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and passionate water safety expert, wrote an excellent article ("Drowning doesn't look like drowning") for his blog at It explains what Dr. Francesco A. Pia labeled as the Instinctive Drowning Response, which comes down to this: Children and adults who are truly in trouble and literally seconds away from drowning simply cannot make any noise.

They cannot wave their arms, speak (much less yell) or reach out for rescue devices. This instinctive response is solely focused on getting air and keeping their bodies upright until they can't any longer and silently sink under. This all occurs within 30 to 60 seconds.

So not only is drowning silent, it's fast. This makes parental vigilance and providing layers of protection absolutely vital to drowning prevention.

It makes me want to scream this message from the rooftops for every single person to hear: DROWNING IS SILENT! YOU CANNOT LET YOUR GUARD DOWN!

I think this is something too many of us take for granted. We're at pool parties, lounging poolside while our kids swim, or enjoying a quiet day at the lake; certain that we would hear our kids if they got into trouble.

The reality is the exact opposite: There's no sound. No one saw it. And then there's the frantic search for the "missing" child.

The good news is that drowning is 100 percent preventable. And now that you know drowning is silent, you have already increased the safety of your children in and around water. You know that silence is never a good thing when it comes to kids and swimming.

Add extra layers of protection in these way:

Always provide touch supervision to children younger than 4 years old. They should always be within arm's reach.

Never (even for a second) leave a toddler or young child alone in the bathtub, by a pool or in a wading pool. Remember, it only takes seconds of submersion to change a life forever.

Formal swim lessons in children older than 1 have been shown to reduce the risk of drowning, but keep in mind that regardless, no child is "drown-proof" no matter how good a swimmer they are.

Assign a designated watcher at pool parties or other water events. Parents too often become complacent when there are a lot of people around. We all assume "someone" is watching when the reality is that there may be 20 adults but no one is particularly paying attention to the kids in the pool.

Learn CPR. Time is critical when you are assisting a potential drowning victim and you're waiting for the emergency response team.

Use U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vests always when on boats or other watercraft. Inflatable pool toys such as noodles, kickboards and arm floaties are not life-saving devices. Do not rely on these to keep your child safe in the water.

If you have a pool in your backyard, make sure it has a fence with self-latching gate.

Always drain standing water and don't leave "kiddie" pools filled.

For more pool and water safety information, visit the drowning prevention page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website ( SafeChild/Drowning). I encourage all parents, grandparents and caregivers to read Mario Vittone's article and watch the accompanying video on the Instinctive Drowning Response.

I certainly have two kids who love the water. Swimming is fun. It is meant to be enjoyed, but if you take anything away from this article today, please remember that drowning is both silent and 100 percent preventable. The best thing you can do to keep your loved ones safe is remain vigilant and keep your eyes on the prize (your children).

Dr. Melissa Arca is a pediatrician and mother of two. Her blog,, is featured on The Bee's blog and community news network, sacramentoconnect.sacbee. com.

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