Drowning: If you’re a parent, read this!

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drowning, toddler wearing swimming goggles

Summer time is finally here. It’s a time for recreation and family fun. Activities are a bit toned down this year due to restrictions placed on most states because of COVID-19. Still, people are somewhat able to get out and about, perhaps, even taking vacations again. Many people have backyard swimming pools. Others love to swim at the beach or friends’ houses, or community pools. Drowning occurs among children at an alarming rate in this country.

Especially if you’re a parent or a child care provider, you’ll want to take note of the information in this post. The first issue to remember is that many drownings occur silently. We all have likely held images in our mind of what a person looks like when drowning. Movies and stories in books often illustrate a drowning incident by showing a victim thrashing about in water, screaming or gurgling just beneath the surface of the water. In reality, particularly concerning children, drowning often takes place suddenly and silently.

Diffusion of responsibility increases risk of drowning

This term might be new to you but you should learn it, understand it and avoid it. Diffusion of responsibility is a phenomenon that reportedly occurs when two or more adults are present and tasked with overseeing a situation, like safeguarding children in a pool. One adult is much more likely to be diligent and swift-acting while watching a child in a pool than a group of adults might be.

If that sounds illogical to you, you’re definitely not the only one to feel confused about it. It seems that the more adults that are present by a pool or lake or other body of water, the likelier a drowning child might be saved. That’s not usually what happens, however. As explained in this article, psychologists say that diffusion of responsibility means adults let down their guard and become less steadfast about their duties of safeguarding kids when other adults are present. It’s almost as if the subconscious mind assumes another adult will handle a problem if it arises, so there’s no need to pay such close attention to what’s going on.

Drowning often occurs when clothes get wet

If a young child is walking near a pool fully dressed in non-swimming attire, the risk of drowning increases. If he or she topples into the water wearing jeans or a hoodie and shoes or boots, the clothing is going to act like a sinker. The minute it becomes saturated, it will get heavy and the person wearing it will sink to the bottom of the pool.

This startling statistic should be enough to make any parent double-up on child protection near water: For kids under age four, drowning is the number one cause of death in this country. Bodies of water where drownings are most likely to occur include swimming pools, rivers, lakes, bathtubs, hot tubs and DITCHES — yes, DITCHES. Data shows that the ratio of child drownings to hospitalizations or emergency room care is 1:4. This means that, for every child who does not survive his or her drowning injuries, another four children wind up in the hospital being treated for similar injuries.

Do NOT assume a lifeguard will save your child

drowning, lifeguard on duty surrounded by people
Never assume a lifeguard will notice a potential hazard!

In 2008, a 4-year-old boy waded into the low end of a pool to stand under a mushroom waterfall. His mother was sitting at poolside and there seven lifeguards on duty — SEVEN! No one saw the child disappear in the cascading waterfall. No one saw him get submerged in the shallow pool. He was deceased by the time the adults who were present found him.

Lifeguards are typically specially trained, skilled people who know how to rescue someone from a drowning situation. However, they have to KNOW there is an emergency situation in order to respond. Never assume that a lifeguard on duty sees your child. If you’re letting your child go swimming with another adult and you’re not going to be present, discuss this issue ahead of time.

Surrounding activity diminishes protection by causing distraction

drowning, woman in white robe using cell phone by pool
Turning away from the water or using a cell phone causes distraction!


Many parents host backyard pool parties for their children’s birthdays. Also, it’s common for people to have cookouts or other summer time gatherings where they invite people with children to swim in their pool. Socializing is fun, but things can quickly become noisy and busy around a pool. You may THINK you’re focused on keeping an eye on your child in the pool. However, even having a conversation with someone near you is enough to distract your attention.

If you’re watching a child near or in a body of water, you must stay focused and alert, just as if you were operating a motor vehicle in heavy traffic! In car, if you take your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel or mind off the task at hand, disaster can occur in a split second. It’s the same regarding children near water, even if they know how to swim!

Avoid habituation to improve child safety

The human mind is an amazing thing. Have you ever conquered a fear? It’s an awesome feeling, isn’t it? Our mind has the ability to adapt to repeated situations. The more often we go somewhere or do something, the more comfortable we feel. It’s called “habituation.” Your mind senses certain things in your surroundings or experiences. When you’ve been in similar surroundings over and over again, your mind says, “Ah, I know this. This is safe.”

Habituation can backfire when we’re talking child safety at a swimming pool or other body of water! Habituation helps us adapt, even to busy, chaotic surroundings. At a pool, it can cause you to let down your guard. You don’t do it intentionally and it doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child’s safety, but it happens and it’s something you need to be aware of and try to avoid! This type of automatic risk assessment that’s built into our brains can affect our decision-making in certain situations, such as when we’re protecting children near or in a body of water! Your subconscious mind thinks, “I know this. This is safe. Even though it’s loud and busy, everything is okay.” It can cause you to overlook a serious risk factor or delay reaction in an urgent situation.

You might logically assume that the more times you visit a swimming location, the safer your kids will be. The opposite is actually true! Because of habituation, the more times you visit the same place, the GREATER the risk is for drowning to occur!

Enjoy with caution

Anxiety can be debilitating. You obviously want to have a good time when you’re socializing with your children. If you’re overly stressed or anxious, that, too, can negatively affect your decision-making process. It’s best to learn as much as you can about drowning, then practice diligence, alertness and swift response techniques, without becoming so fearful that it impedes yours and your children’s ability to have a nice time.

Also, discuss drowning with your kids. Make sure they understand that they don’t have to be swimming to become endangered, as many accidents happen when children fall into pools or slip under water in ditches, bathtubs or the low-end of a water park. Several parents in the article I linked earlier have suffered the tragic loss of a child due to drowning. They have devoted their lives to helping other parents improve child safety. It’s worth reading! And, here’s another Hot Mess Press post (about snakes) to help improve summer time safety!


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