Kids can drown without a sound, says Sydney Children's Hospital

Tdjanaya Anderson-Rosser with her daughter, Amina, 5, who nearly drowned at Narrabeen Lakes last year in Sydney.
Tdjanaya Anderson-Rosser with her daughter, Amina, 5, who nearly drowned at Narrabeen Lakes last year in Sydney.  Photo: Janie Barrett

On a scorching day at Narrabeen Lakes last summer, five-year old Amina Anderson almost drowned in the blink of an eye.

"We turned around and saw her submerged underwater. When we pulled her out of the water, she wasn't responding, and her chest was making a cracking noise … I thought she was going to die," Amina's mother Tdjanaya Anderson-Rosser said.

Amina was one of the lucky ones. She was quickly rushed to hospital, where doctors carefully monitored her and treated her for possible pneumonia. She was eventually discharged later that day fully healthy.

Doctors and surf life savers are urging parents to remain vigilant while their children are swimming.
Doctors and surf life savers are urging parents to remain vigilant while their children are swimming. Photo: Sarah Keayes

But tragically, many are not as fortunate. In NSW, 461 children have drowned in the last 15 years. For every child that dies, up to nine others are hospitalised for drowning. Many who survive suffer from permanent brain injuries which can leave them with lifelong learning difficulties.

Last summer, NSW experienced one of its worst drowning seasons in recent memory - 41 people died, with 13 deaths coming between Christmas and New Year, a report by the Royal Surf Live Saving Society Australia found. Fifteen per cent of those who died were children under five years old.

So far, there have been 16 coastal drownings in NSW since June this year, six of which have occurred since the start of December. Just last week, two people were killed at beaches in northern NSW.

In order to avoid more tragedies, doctors and surf life savers are urging parents to remain vigilant while their children are swimming.

Dr Mary McCaskill, emergency medical director at the Sydney Children's Hospitals Network, believes that many parents underestimate the potential risks and do not realise just how quickly a child can drown.

"Most parents and carers think they will hear something if their child is drowning, but in fact it is very silent and rapid. Sadly, even a non-fatal drowning can result in devastating brain injuries and lifelong disabilities for the child in just a couple of minutes," Dr McCaskill said.

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During the frenetic Christmas period, people can often be too distracted to pay attention to potential warning signs.

"In summer, when everyone's busy getting ready for Christmas, people get distracted from watching their children. It's that distraction that's so dangerous," Dr McCaskill said.

'Glued to their phones'

Ms Anderson-Rosser said when Amina nearly drowned, almost no one noticed.

"Everybody was glued to their phones. Parents shouldn't be on their phones while their kids are swimming, they should be paying attention."

The experts say that with proper supervision and careful safety measures, the risk of drowning can be greatly mitigated.

According to Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive Steven Pearce "it is vital for parents to have close and immediate supervision around any sort of water, whether it's at the beach or a backyard pool, even a bath".

"Children always need an adult who is doing nothing else but watching them when they are swimming," Dr McCaskill said.

Never underestimate the ocean

Additionally, parents should take particular care at the beach and make sure kids always swim between the flags.

"Ocean conditions can change quickly and dramatically, and children can easily get swept off their feet or caught in a rip, even if they are only wading," Mr Pearce said.

According to Dr McCaskill, "primary school children tend to underestimate the power of the surf and think they're stronger than they are".

Dr McCaskill and Mr Pearce also say that CPR is an invaluable skill for parents to learn, particularly if they own pools.

Above all, Ms Anderson-Rosser says that Amina's experience should serve as a wake-up call for other parents.

"Be more aware and never take your eyes off them," she said. "It can happen so quickly."