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Drowning: First aid for a baby

Timing is critical when it comes to saving your baby from a near-drowning (submersion) experience. If enough oxygen is not being delivered to their brain, severe damage can occur within a few minutes. If the baby's heart has stopped beating for more than eight to 10 minutes, their chances of surviving are greatly reduced.

In this article, a baby is a child younger than 12 months of age. If your child is aged 12 months or older, please see our advice on giving first aid to a child who is drowning​.

Where can drowning occur?

Drowning can happen in as little as 20 seconds, even in water that is only inches deep. Most infanthood drowning or near-drowning cases happen in backyard pools, bath tubs and inflatable pools. Natural bodies of water, toilets and drainage sites are other places where drowning can occur.

How can you tell if your baby is drowning?

Be sure to monitor your baby at all times when they are in, or near, water. Also, watch for signs of drowning because a baby in distress will not be able to yell for help.

Signs of drowning

  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Floating face down
  • Gasping for air

Putting yourself at risk trying to save your baby

It is important that you do not put your life in danger trying to rescue your baby. If your only option is to enter the water, bring a flotation device with you. This can be a life-jacket or even a pool noodle. When you are safely out of the water, begin CPR right away.


CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. CPR is an emergency procedure that involves a combination of chest compressions and rescue breaths (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation).

Giving CPR to your baby

Check to see if your baby is responsive by rubbing their chest and calling their name. If they do not move or make a sound, call 911 right away. If you are not alone, have someone call for you.

If your baby does respond to your touch, check to see if they have any injuries. If they need medical attention, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, make sure your baby is breathing and in a safe place before you leave to call 911.

Check for breathing

Check for breathing by watching your baby's chest for any movement. You can also place your ear over their mouth to listen and feel for breathing. If your baby is unconscious and not breathing, call 911 right away. If you are not alone, have someone call for you.

Chest compressions

Begin CPR by laying your baby down on a firm, flat surface. Place your two fingers on their breastbone, just below the nipple line. Give them 30 quick chest compressions, pressing hard enough so their chest moves about 1.5 inches down. This will get the blood flowing to their brain and other vital organs.


Rescue breaths

Open the airway

After the first 30 chest compressions, place the palm of your hand on your baby's forehead. Place two fingers under the tip of their chin and gently tilt their head back. This will open their airway.


Begin rescue breathing

Place your mouth over their nose and mouth, forming a tight seal, and give two slow breaths. If your baby's chest does not rise, reposition their head, form a tighter seal, and try again.



Repeat this cycle of 30 chest compressions and two breaths until the ambulance arrives or your baby starts breathing again. You should be aiming to give about 100 compressions per minute and eight to 10 breaths per minute.


Recovery position

It is common for your baby to vomit and find it difficult to breathe after CPR. Simply put your baby in a recovery position, with their face pointing slightly down. Make sure nothing is blocking or covering their mouth and nose. The recovery position will help keep their airway open.​


Delayed drowning

Delayed drowning happens when a baby dies from complications after a near-drowning experience. This can occur from one to 24 hours after the rescue. If your baby has had a near-drowning experience, get immediate medical attention even if they appear to be well.

When to call a doctor

Get medical attention right away if you see any of these signs in your baby:

  • persistent coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • blue colour on skin and lips
  • loss of consciousness.

Key points

  • Drowning can occur in as little as 20 seconds.
  • Don’t put your life at risk trying to save your baby. If you must enter the water to perform a rescue, bring a flotation device with you.
  • If your baby is unconscious and not breathing, call 911 right away.
  • Delayed drowning can occur one to 24 hours after a near-drowning rescue. Be sure to monitor your baby, and seek medical attention right away if they lose consciousness or have difficulty breathing.

Elly Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE