Whether in a pool, a bathtub or a lake, drowning can happen quickly and quietly. It is also one of the leading causes of injury-related deaths for young children in Canada.
More than nine in 10 (96 per cent) of drownings among children under the age of five happen because of absent or distracted supervision, according to a 2023 Lifesaving Society report.
“A big message right now that we need parents to hear is that you cannot take your eyes off your kids even for a split second,” urged Stephanie Bakalar, corporate communications manager for the Lifesaving Society Ontario.
“Assign someone else to watch your kids if you have to look away, even if you’re putting sunscreen on another one of your kids.”
The majority of drowning incidents involving children occur in residential settings, such as backyard swimming pools and bathtubs, Bakalar said, but any body of water can be dangerous without proper supervision.
Drowning rates, for all Canadians, typically reach their peak in the country around July and August and on weekends, when the weather is warmer and more families flock to the water to cool off.
The dangers aren’t just in Canada. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning has caused over 2.5 million deaths globally in the last decade, and across all age groups, children ages one to nine experience the highest drowning rates.
14-year-old in critical condition after near drowning at White Pine Beach
The tragic incident in Oakville took place during a party, police said. While several adults and children were celebrating, a child went “underwater and apparently undetected for an undetermined period of time.”
The heightened risk of drowning for children stems from their limited understanding of water dangers, restricted mobility, smaller lung capacity, and reduced balance and co-ordination, making them vulnerable even in as little as one inch of water, according to the Lifesaving Society.
And while swimming lessons for toddlers are a crucial life skill, Bakalar warns it can inadvertently instill a false sense of security in parents.
“You can’t assume that just because your kids have been in a swimming lesson they’re drown-proof. There’s no such thing,” she cautioned.
Dr. Suzanne Beno, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said it’s important to recognize the signs of drowning.
Unlike on television, where we hear a lot of yelling and see a lot of splashing, people generally aren’t thrashing around and drowning is usually “silent and quick,” she said.
“Drowning can occur within 20 seconds,” she said.
When someone, like a child, is drowning, it may appear as if they are climbing an invisible ladder and struggling, but sometimes, it can occur silently without any noticeable visual cues.”
Drowning can happen to anyone
Although young children are disproportionately at risk for drowning, Bakalar said it can happen to anyone, even experienced swimmers.
“The fact is water is unpredictable, and anything can happen,” she warned. “I’ve been a swimmer for a long time. I’m a lifeguard and it could happen to me.”
Each year, more than 450 Canadians drown in preventable incidents, and around 100 of those drownings are related to recreational boating, according to the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition.
The highest adult rates of drowning in Canada, according to 2022 statistics, are among men 50 to 64 years old (25 per cent), seniors 65 years and older (22 per cent) and young adults 20 to 34 years of age (21 per cent).
“Males are typically more likely to drown than females and the 15- to 35-year-old males are much more very likely to drown,” Bakalar said.
“This is because (some might) have a sense of invincibility and they’re much more willing to take risks … they feel like, ‘I’m young, I’m fit, I can do this.”
The importance of water skills and safety
Another vulnerable group is people new to Canada, who are four times more likely to drown than those who were born in the country, according to the Lifesaving Society.
“Oftentimes swimming isn’t a part of the culture where new Canadians have grown up,” Bakalar said. “Or maybe they didn’t have access to water if they lived in an inland country.”
Because drowning is a preventable tragedy, experts like Beno say there are many ways to stay safe and educated about swimming.
“People should get out there and enjoy the water and enjoy the season while we have it,” Beno said. “But they should also not take unnecessary risks because even for inexperienced swimmers, it’s so quick and so unpredictable…. It’s just such a tragedy every time it happens.”
The Lifesaving Society suggests parents adopt multiple layers of protection while supervising their kids around a pool or lake. This involves constant supervision, ensuring children wear life-jackets, keeping a cellphone readily available for emergencies and even having someone around who is a strong swimmer with first aid training.
Life-jackets, a personal flotation device (PFD) and puddle jumpers are all great options to enhance water safety for children and adults, providing they are approved by Transport Canada or the Canadian Coast Guard (which you can usually find on the inside of the item).
Water wings are not approved by the Lifesaving Society.
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“We know a lot of parents like water wings, especially those inflatable ones. They blow up and they’re really quick to use,” Bakalar said. “The problem with water wings, especially anything inflatable, is that they can deflate and the water wings can pop right off arms when your kids jump into the water.”
Bakalar also recommends that all adults and children wear life-jackets when boating, as 80 per cent of boaters who drowned were not wearing a PFD or life-jacket at the time of the incident.
Another way Canadians can stay water-safe is by learning how to swim. Taking swimming lessons is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself in and around water, Bakalar said.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,” she said.
“There are swimming lessons designed for adults and that take your hesitations and your fears into account, because we know that it can be really challenging to try something new.”
— with files from Global News’ Don Mitchell