How to spot a drowning child or adult (it rarely involves splashing and screaming)

Drowning can happen suddenly and silently.

An average of 13 kids die by drowning each year in the UK. (Getty Images)
An average of 13 kids die by drowning each year in the UK. (Getty Images)

Summer brings warmer temperatures, but also an increased risk of drowning as more Brits enter sea and pool waters in a bid to cool off.

According to the Royal Lifesaving Society, there were 226 accidental drownings in the UK in 2022, with more people (60%) dying in inland waters like canals, rivers, lakes and reservoirs, than at the coast.

Nearly half (46%) of these drownings happened during the months of June to August. Men were more likely to drown, accounting for 83% of fatalities, while recreational activities were the cause of 58% of deaths.

Read more: How to stay safe around water in the hot weather - Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read

Further statistics from Chesterfield Royal Hospital found that an average of 13 children die from drowning each year, with 90% between the ages of 1 to 4, and 40% of these are in the bath.

Yet, while drowning is often depicted as a person splashing about and calling out for help, this isn’t always the case.

man swimming in a river
Men are more likely to accidentally drown than women. (Getty Images)

"Drowning happens silently. A drowning child can’t speak or control their arms; they can’t cry out for help or wave to be rescued. They slip quietly under the water, often unseen," an NHS release says.

How to spot drowning

Here are a few signs that someone might be drowning - it rarely involves splashing and calling for help.

  • Dipping below the water and back up: The Red Cross says a person who is drowning will dip below he water and briefly back up again, and will be struggling to exhale and inhale.

  • Head back and mouth open: The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) says a person who is drowning will have their head tilted back with their mouth open, or have their mouth at water level.

  • Upright position: They will be in a vertical position and not using their legs.

  • Panicked eyes and face: A person who is drowning will either have closed or glassy eyes that struggle to focus or hold eye contact. They may also be hyperventilating and, if they have long hair, it may be over their face.

  • Climbing a ladder: Someone who is struggling may look like they are trying to climb an invisible ladder, the RNLI says, trying to stay buoyant. Or they may look stressed and trying to swim in a particular direction but not getting anywhere.

  • Doggy paddle: A child’s drowning movements can sometimes also look like doggy paddle.

If you do spot someone drowning, immediately call for help. If there are lifeguards, inform them, or if it is safe to do so and you are a competent swimmer, you can attempt to help the person. However, never put yourself in danger when trying to rescue someone else.

Read more: Heatstroke vs heat exhaustion: Signs, symptoms and how to prevent both - Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read

Drowning first aid

When the person is rescued, St John’s ambulance says you should first do a primary survey which includes the acronym DRABC: Danger, Response, Airway, Breathing and Circulation.

  • Danger: Make sure the area is safe.

  • Response: Check if the person is responsive or unresponsive.

  • Airway: Check the airway is clear by placing one hand on the forehead to tilt their head back and lift the chin.

  • Breathing: Check if they are breathing either by listening or watching their chest.

  • Circulation: Check for any signs of bleeding, and check their pulse.

Ask a helper to call 999 if they are unresponsive or no breathing, or 112 for emergency help when you start CPR.

You can then give the person five initial rescue breaths once you check their airway is open - pinch their nose with your finger which allows their mouth to fall open. Blow into the mouth until the chest rises.

Joyful young child wearing a wetsuit paddles in the shallow tide. She looks away and laughs at something out of frame. Sky provides space for copy.
Kids can look like they are doggy paddling when they are drowning. (Getty Images)

Then you’ll need to do chest compressions. Kneel next to the person and put the heel of your hand in the middle of their check with your other hand on top. Interlock your fingers and make sure they don’t touch the ribs.

Keep your arms straight and lean over them, pressing down hard to a third of the depth of the chest and allow the chest to come back up. You should aim for 100 to 200 compressions per minute to the beat of ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees, with two rescue breaths given for every 30 chest compressions.

Read more: UK's best Blue Flag beaches as swimmers avoid sea over sewage fears - Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read

Compressions should continue until emergency help arrives, or the person starts to show signs of life and breathes normally. If the person vomits up the water, roll them onto their side to clear their airway.