One of the main reasons to learn to swim is safety. I get quite militant about this. We live on a small island in world with a surface 80% covered in water. We teach our children how to cross the road and not talk to strangers, and we should teach them all to swim.
In the UK, drowning is number three on the list of young child-killers (ONS statistics, 2014). That’s after congenital abnormalities and flu, and not being run over or abducted by strangers.
But drowning doesn’t make very good headlines, and there seems to be a lack of impetus to get children swimming from a young age. To me, this just doesn’t make sense when being able to swim, and both parents and children having good water safety awareness could potentially save a life.
Unfortunately, the only stories that seem to get circulated are ones that use scary terms like dry drowning and secondary drowning. This story, rather worryingly published by Medical News Today in the USA (though I would contest that the author’s PhD was in anything medical), uses the term ‘dry drowning’ completely incorrectly, and gives parents the fear about letting their children swim.
Little Johnny sadly died from the symptoms of what is sometimes referred to as secondary drowning (although the medical profession is trying to stop both these phrases being used because they’re misleading). This is where someone has got into trouble in the water; either stayed under too long, or panicked and gasped for air, and water has entered the lungs so the lining has become inflamed and permeable. Other bodily fluids can then enter the lungs, causing asphyxiation.
When you go under water, a couple of things happen. Firstly, you hold your breath. If water gets in your throat, your voice box closes up, effectively plugging your lungs. This handy little reflex is called a laryngospasm, and along with the cough reflex and swallow reflex, your body does a pretty good job of stopping water from getting into your lungs.
If you stay under the water too long, the dropping oxygen levels in your body will make you try to breathe and your laryngospasm subside, so your lungs take on water. If you were rescued at this point, you’d probably have trouble breathing and be taken to hospital to be monitored for up to 72 hours.
In around 10-20% of cases, there’s no attempt to take a breath, and the laryngospasm remains, causing the victim to die of asphyxiation without any liquid actually entering the lungs. This is what’s sometimes called dry drowning.
In babies, the voice box is much higher, which is why they have higher voices. It’s also why little babies can go under water without purposefully holding their breath – that laryngospasm happens straight away, so there’s no risk of water entering their lungs.
By starting swimming when your baby is little, you can take advantage of this reflex to do a few things: make sure they don’t develop a fear of going under water because they’re used to it; teach them how to purposefully hold their breath; teach them how to kick to the surface, turn around and hold the side or a floating object, roll on to their backs and right themselves; teach baby and parents how to behave in and around the water, and help them understand their abilities and limitations.
This last point is so important. I recently taught a water safety session to a Beaver-Scout group, so children aged between six and eight years old. Before the session we asked the parents if their children could swim, to which nearly all said they could. But at least four parents were wrong, and their children could barely swim at all.
Many children drown because they either fall into water or are left in water unsupervised, including the bath at home. Holiday pools in private rentals and villas are another big danger area. I wonder if the parents of those children at the Beavers session would have left their children to play unsupervised in a pool on holiday.
By contrast, I taught a little boy called Sam, who was going through what we call a ‘water wobble’. At 15 months old, he was clingy and wary in the water. But he had been swimming since he was four months old, and this was a natural developmental stage. He was away for a couple of weeks on holiday with his family. When they came back, his mum told me that Sam had fallen in the villa pool. She was with him, but in the time it took her to stand up, he had turned and was holding on to the pool side. Would he have panicked had he not been swimming for most of his life?
The main message from the Royal Life Saving Society is that through awareness of water safety, many drowning accidents can be prevented. From Water Babies comes the message start young, and learn together.
But it’s never too late to learn. To find out about swimming lessons for children and adults, visit the ASA Go Swimming website.