Tips to prevent child drownings | Western Cape Government

Tips to prevent child drownings

Children receiving swimming lessons.Water games and pool activities can be fun for children but it can also be dangerous when they're left unattended. 

Drowning is serious and poses a public health threat. According to Statistics South Africa, fatal drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional death in the country.

In South Africa, drowning rates are highest among children between 0-4 years followed by 5-14 years. In the Western Cape, 1473 fatal drowning incidents were reported between 2010 and mid-2017 (Statistics South Africa, 2017).

Children under the age of 15 years old account for 30.2% of all fatal drowning in the country with the highest mortality rate occurring in children under the age of 5 years old.

What happens to your body when you’re drowning?

Did you know that drowning can happen within 20 seconds?  When someone drowns, they experience extreme breathing difficulty because they are submerged in water/liquid and their airways are being blocked.

It’s common to panic as you try and hold your breath while struggling to stay above water. Once you begin to swallow water/liquid, your reflux responses will be triggered which causes you to cough.

With a lack of oxygen being delivered to the brain, it can take a few minutes before severe damage occurs.

"Dry" drowning and secondary drowning 

Dry drowning happens when a child inhales in water through the nose or mouth, causing the vocal cords to go into a spasm. The drowning is called “dry” because water doesn't reach the lungs. This type of drowning becomes fatal because the vocal cords don't relax and airways are blocked which makes it difficult to breathe.

Secondary or “delayed” drowning happens when water enters the lungs, causing inflammation or swelling. The swelling can occur hours or even days after the initial incident. Death from delayed drowning is due to swelling of the small air sacs in the lungs, preventing oxygen from entering the bloodstream.

Infographic of how to do CPRSigns of a possible drowning

A drowning child may not be able to call for help, so it’s best to be aware of the signs:

  • The child is floating with their face down in the water.
  • The child’s head is tilted back and their mouth is open.
  • The child is gasping for air.
  • The child is trying to swim in a particular direction and isn’t making any progress.

How to prevent drowning 

To keep your children safe in and near the water, follow these guidelines:

  • Always make sure that your child is being supervised by a responsible adult while swimming or playing with or around water.
  • Teach your kids to swim. Enroll children in age-appropriate swim lessons to help protect them from drowning.
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and rescue techniques. Your CPR skills could save someone’s life.
  • Medical conditions such as epilepsy increase your risk of drowning. If you or your child has epilepsy or experiences seizures make sure that they’re always being supervised.
  • Always be prepared and know what to do in case of an emergency. Save all emergency numbers on your cell-phone or nearby for easy access.

Learn CPR and rescue techniques 

Although drowning can be fatal, your child can survive if they get help immediately.  

Knowing how to administer CPR to a child or infant who is drowning could mean the difference between life and death. If the child’s heart has stopped for 8 to 10 minutes, the chance of survival is slim.

Don’t risk your own life and safety when trying to rescue the child. Rather use a flotation device like a life jacket or noodle. Once the child is safely out the water you can begin to administer CPR.

This involves a combination of chest compressions and rescue breaths known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

The following CPR procedure is for children between the age of 12 months and 8 years old.

  1. Chest compressions:
    Lay the child down on a flat, firm surface. Place the heel of your hand over the lower third area of their breastbone and give the child 30 quick chest compressions. Press hard enough so that the chest moves down 5 centimetres. This will help get the blood flowing to the vital organs and the brain.
  2. Push hard, push fast:
    For children:
    Place the heel of one hand on the center of the chest, then place the heel of the other hand on top of the first hand, and lace your fingers together. Deliver 30 quick compressions that are each about 2 inches deep.
    For infants: Use 2 fingers to deliver 30 quick compressions that are each about 1.5 inches deep.
  3. Give 2 rescue breaths:
    Open the airway. Place 1 hand on their forehead, 2 fingers under the tip of the chin and gently tilt the neck back. Pinch nose closed, and place your mouth over their mouth and give two slow breaths, making sure the chest rises with each breath.
  4. Keep going:
    Repeat the 30 compressions and 2 long breaths till the child is able to breathe or the ambulance arrives.

More information

For more information on the prevention of drowning and water safety in the Western Cape, please read the Western Cape Drowning Prevention and Water Safety Strategy


The content on this page was last updated on 30 December 2019