Author Archives: Mario Vittone

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning

by Mario Vittone

(This article was originally published on Mario Vittone’s blog, and has been republished here with his permission.)

Drowning doesn't look like drowningThe new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. “Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.

The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind. To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the number two cause of accidental death in children, age 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents) – of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In ten percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening (source: CDC). Drowning does not look like drowning – Dr. Pia, in an article in the Coast Guard’s On Scene Magazine, described the instinctive drowning response like this:

  1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.
  2. Drowning people’s mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people’s mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.
  3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.
  4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.
  5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

Source: On Scene Magazine: Fall 2006 (page 14)

This doesn’t mean that a person that is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level
  • Head tilted back with mouth open
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus
  • Eyes closed
  • Hair over forehead or eyes
  • Not using legs – Vertical
  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction but not making headway
  • Trying to roll over on the back
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK – don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all – they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

(See a video of the Instinctive Drowning Response)

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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Deciphering the Learn to Swim Process

by Mario Vittone

Looking down the long black line that runs the length of the pool I can’t hear anything except the bubbles from my exhaling breath and a trickle as my hands enter the water. Pulling my way from one end of the pool to the other and back again, I glide and twist in a way that has become habit. I suddenly realize that I could do this all day.

Today I’m as confident when swimming as I am when walking down the street. Of all the goals we have for our children that has to be one of them. Being able to swim makes our children safer, it makes their lives more fun, and opens them up to sports and activities that are not practical for non-swimmers. With so many different ideas out there on how to build that confidence and ability, parents should keep in mind the following:

First Things First:

Swim Step 1I don’t remember my first experience in the water, but I have seen home movies of the event. My father is standing in a knee-high wading pool near our home, holding me under my arms and swinging me down and across the surface of the water. Still in diapers and just a few months old, you can tell that I was laughing. My first experience in the water was fun.

The first thing anyone needs to do when learning to swim is always the same, regardless of their age; they have to want to be in the water. Make sure your child’s first experiences in the water are happy times. It’s important that they feel safe and actually are safe by having someone right there with them at all times. Make this early exposure to water about play, about having fun and sharing laughter.

The goal is to simply make the water a comfortable place for your child to be and to develop trust between the two of you. Whether that is through you holding them in your arms or pulling them through the water in a Baby Spring Float - any introduction to water, particularly before their 12th or 18th month, should simply be about an association with the water that is about having fun with you.

Second Thing Second:

Balance and breathing in the water come next; this is where your child learns to control when to hold his breath at the appropriate times and begins to get used to the feeling of supporting himself more independently in the water. There are a lot of opinions out there about when this should happen, but parents should remember that this part should be fun too. Staying within arms’ reach or holding your toddler and walking them through the water helps them learn how the water supports and hinders movement in different ways.

Being confident with submersion and going face down are also critical first steps in learning water Swim Goggles
confidence before learning to swim. I do not recommend that parents ever forcefully submerge children to teach them how to hold their breath. Breath holding can be taught using games. With your child wanting to imitate your behavior and allowing her to control it herself is not only safer, it is more fun.

One way to encourage children to practice breath holding and putting their head down in the water is through the use of goggles. A submersible toy will give them a target to focus on, and you can lower and raise the toy below and above the surface of the water. This game of following their favorite toy above and below the surface is a great way to help children practice something while playing.

Third Things Third:

This is the part where supporting vests like the Sea Squirts Swim Assist and the Power Swimr can be valuable tools. Fully supported and confident being in the pool, children can then learn to use their arms to pull themselves through the water, support themselves with kicking and develop the muscle coordination necessary for independent movement.

SwimWays Power SwimrYou can start by just having them float (in water just deep enough for their toes to touch) and use their arms and legs to spin in circles. This is still just about having fun, and they should hardly know you are trying to teach them to do anything. You are just playing games and having fun moving through the water. Having them pull themselves – even with dog-paddle like strokes – towards you as you back away will teach them that they can control where they go and how they get there.

At this stage, particularly if your child is now age four or older, you may consider formal swim lessons. A qualified and experienced swim instructor can make a big difference. Exposure to other children learning the same things may also help with confidence and help encourage a lifelong love of water. This is the phase of my learning to swim that I do remember vividly. My mother would take me to the “big pool” where there were lots of other kids, and I was introduced to swimming underwater, proper breathing and useful flotation devices. After years of play and fun, I finally began to learn the techniques I would use for the rest of my life. Parents can teach children to swim themselves, but a mix of formal lessons and at-home practice and fun can be a learning multiplier.

And Finally:

The final phase is when your child is completely confident being in the water and you have to force them to get out of the pool before their skin wrinkles – this is what you were going for in the first place! Gaining confidence and skill learning to swim using kickboards and swim vests, they are now ready to take the training wheels off and just go. And though you may have them enrolled in formal swim lessons, keeping the water fun is still a great way for them to build skill and confidence. Water toys of all kinds can be useful in getting your kids to practice without them even knowing it.

This is also a very critical stage where you need to be watchful and present while they are in the water. During the early stages of independent free swimming, they will want to explore and discover their limits, and you’ll want to be right there when they do. It can be a nervous time for parents, but let them play and practice and maybe even get a little pruney. If getting them out of the pool is difficult, then you have done a good job.

Throughout every phase of your child learning to swim, remember to be patient. Swimming is a lifelong skill but real water confidence and ability take years. With your patience and their consistent and enjoyable time in the water, your children can one day be just as confident when swimming as they are when walking down the street.

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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The Use of Flotation Aids in Swim Lessons

by Mario Vittone

Ask any two professional swim instructors and you will likely get two very different responses to the question, “Should flotation be used in swimming lessons?”   Camps are divided and arguments have gone on for years about the proper way to teach children to swim.  For an even more heated debate, bring up arm floaties or Swimmies and you’ll hear everything from people talking about them as their favorite childhood toy, to well-meaning people calling them “dangerous.”

SwimWays Sea SquirtsThe concerns about flotation devices and children revolve around two very different but pervasive ideas, neither of which I personally agree with.  One is that using flotation gives children a “false sense of security” in the water.  The other is that use of flotation makes them dependent on flotation and that learning to swim is hindered, rather than helped with flotation.

To me, both of these arguments are classic examples of people thinking about the questions all wrong – and that is why there is such debate. To arrive at a good answer we have to understand what we are asking and in this case many people, including water safety professionals and educators, aren’t doing that. They forget that the question isn’t that simple. There are differences that have to be considered.

The difference between a lesson and playtime:

You can’t make every minute in the water with your kids a “lesson” in swimming.  In fact, good luck getting them to pay direct attention to you for more than about 20 minutes when trying to teach them anything.  Parents (and professional swimming instructors) should remember that playing is not the same thing as formal learning but it is still valuable time in the water.

Playing with floating pool toys is fun and the Red Cross agrees that pool toys and floating devices can help acclimates children to the water. Toys provide a variety of activities for parents to engage their children with in the pool and that engagement builds confidence and comfort.  That time in the water playing serves to improve the quality of instruction that occurs during more structured lessons.

If a child’s only time in the water is during structured swim lessons, much of that time is spent simply getting over their excitement and anxiety of being in the water. Recognizing the difference between play and lessons and appreciating the value in them both, changes the question of flotation use entirely.

The difference between a swimming aid, and a toy:

When used to maintain body position in the water, to develop proper swim mechanics, things that float your child (or part of your child) are swimming aids.  Otherwise, they are simply toys. A good example of a toy is the SwimFin.  It only provides flotation when the wearer is out of proper swim position.  But kids like wearing them because it’s fun to look like a shark. It’s fun, but not a supportive swimming aid.

Some pool toys – like those inexpensive noodles – are used by professional swim coaches to support student’s bodies during lessons. In that instance, the toy is being used as an aid in a lesson. Trying to draw hard line conclusions about any one piece of gear or flotation device is a mistake.  How is the device being used is the biggest consideration.

The difference in the child’s sense of security, and yours:

The false sense of security that is dangerous when it comes to any flotation device – even Coast Guard approved ones – resides in parents who treat them like substitutions for monitoring and close supervision.  There is no time that you should be farther than arms reach from a non-swimming child regardless of what they are wearing.  Clearly marked on every pool toy I have ever seen is the phrase “this is not a flotation device.”  Even approved flotation devices aren’t guarantees against aquatic injury or drowning, anymore than seat belts rule out injury in auto accidents.

Problems arise with the use of pool toys and other flotation devices only after a parent or other care provider walks away from a child supported by such devices.  If you aren’t willing to walk away from your child when they aren’t using flotation, then you shouldn’t do so when they are.

The difference in children:

A two-year-old is not half of a four-year-old. They are emotionally, developmentally, and physically very different. Kids themselves – at the same age and relative ability – are very different and can require different methods to attain identical skills.  I’ve met children who thrived and developed as a good swimmer with a progressive use of flotation aids, and met others who simply couldn’t wait to pull the things off and just go for it.  Neither type of learner was doing it wrong.

The difference between dependence and support:

Flotation in swimming lessons is primarily used to assist swimmers, even adult athletes, in maintaining a proper body position suitable for the task being learned.  Noodles and floating barbells are used to support the upper body so students can focus on leg and hip movements.  I can remember the laps my coach made me do with a float between my knees so I could do “arm-only drills” with my legs in proper position.  Devices like the Power Swimr are used by swim coaches to provide varying levels of support and help young swimmers achieve the correct body position and develop quality leg and arm mechanics.

Flotation, when used as a supportive tool, promotes independence by allowing learning swimmers to achieve proper body position and develop the swimming skills properly.  Dependence on flotation is not a problem when it is used appropriately.

So, can flotation aids be used during swim lessons do improve swimming skill?  Of course they can.  Can pool toys and flotation be safely used to develop comfort in the water during playtime?  Certainly.  You simply have to consider the differences in your children, your own reasons for using them, and the flotation devices themselves.

Mario Vittone - Water Safety ExpertMario Vittone is a nationally recognized expert on water safety. His writing on aquatic risk and drowning prevention has appeared in magazines, websites, and newspapers around the world. Mario is a former Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer and instructor and has lectured on boating and water safety across the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation.
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