Drowning: First aid for a child

Child standing by a pool 

Timing is critical when it comes to saving your child 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 your child's heart has stopped beating for more than eight to 10 minutes, their chances of surviving are greatly reduced.

This article has advice on giving first aid to a child aged 12 months or older. If your child is younger than 12 months, please see our advice on giving first aid to a baby 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 childhood drowning or near-drowning cases occur 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 child is drowning?

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

Signs of drowning

  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Floating face down
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction and not making any progress
  • Gasping for air

Putting yourself at risk trying to save your child

It is important that you do not put your life in danger trying to rescue your child. If your child is in a swimming pool, lay belly-down close to the edge and reach for your child with your arms. If a life-saving ring is nearby, use it to pull your child to safety. 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

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 child

Check to see if your child is responsive by tapping them on the shoulder and asking loudly, "Are you OK?" If they do not answer, call 911 right away. If you are not alone, have someone call for you.

If they do answer, quickly 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 child is breathing before you leave to call 911.

Check for breathing

Check for breathing by watching their chest for any movement. You can also place your ear over their mouth to listen and feel for breathing. If your child 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 child down on a firm, flat surface. Place the heel of your hand over the lower third of their breastbone and give them 30 quick chest compressions. Be sure to push hard enough so their chest moves about two inches down. This will get the blood flowing to their brain and other vital organs.

Child standing by a pool  

Rescue breaths

Open the airway

After the first 30 chest compressions, place one hand on their forehead. Place two fingers under the tip of their chin and gently tilt their neck back. This will open their airway.

Child standing by a pool  

Begin rescue breathing

Pinch their nose and place your mouth over their mouth and give two slow breaths. Make sure you see their chest rise with each breath.

Child standing by a pool  

Repeat

Repeat this cycle of 30 chest compressions and two breaths until the ambulance arrives or your child starts breathing again.

Child standing by a pool  

Recovery position

It is common for your child to vomit and find it difficult to breathe after CPR. Simply put your child 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.

Child standing by a pool  

Delayed drowning

Delayed drowning happens when a child dies from complications after a near-drowning experience. This can occur one to 24 hours after the rescue.

When to call a doctor

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

  • persistent coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • tiredness
  • decreased activity
  • mental confusion
  • blue colour on skin and lips
  • loss of consciousness
  • loss of bowel or bladder control​.

Key points

  • Drowning can occur in as little as 20 seconds.
  • Don't put your life at risk trying to save your child. If you must enter the water to perform a rescue, bring a flotation device with you.
  • If your child 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 child, and seek medical attention right away if your child loses consciousness or has difficulty breathing.​

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

6/6/2013




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