If your child is having difficulty breathing or is turning blue, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
What is drowning?
Drowning is when liquid (usually water) is inhaled into the lungs and prevents a person from breathing.
Drowning can either be fatal (drowning resulting in death) or non-fatal, when the person survives.
Previously, a non-fatal drowning was referred to as a near-drowning. Other terms, such as delayed drowning, wet drowning, dry drowning, passive/silent drowning or secondary drowning, were used to describe any illness or injury after a drowning. These terms are no longer used.
Anyone who has non-fatal drowning should be seen by a healthcare professional for a medical assessment.
Where can drowning happen?
Drowning is the leading cause of death for toddlers between the age of 1 and 3 years, and it can occur anywhere.
Most infant drownings happen in the bathtub. Most toddler drownings occur in home swimming pools.
Spas, creeks, rivers and dams are all common sites of drownings, as well as buckets, eskies (coolers), toilets and garden ponds. Babies can drown in as little as 5cm of water.
While young babies are not as much at risk of drowning as toddlers, it’s good practice for parents of newborns to start safe water habits in preparation for when their child becomes more mobile.
Most child drownings occur because of a lack of adult supervision.
What should I do if my baby swallows water?
Most babies swallow some water when they’re having a bath or going for a swim. They’re generally fine, as long as the water goes into their stomach and not their lungs. It’s important for parents to limit the amount of water they swallow.
If you think your baby may have inhaled water into their lungs, sit them upright. Monitor them for any breathing changes and call an ambulance immediately if they are not breathing and/or their colour changes.
What should I do if my child has a drowning incident?
If your child has a drowning incident, you should watch for any of the following symptoms and take them to a doctor, hospital or call an ambulance:
- persistent cough
- difficulty breathing
- lethargy or decreased activity
- blue colour on their skin and lips
- loss of consciousness
- loss of bowel or bladder control
Anyone involved in a drowning incident needs to be seen by a healthcare professional for a medical assessment, even if the incident was minor or they appear to have recovered.
Anyone who has been resuscitated after drowning needs to be closely monitored in case they get worse. This can happen in minutes or hours after being resuscitated. This can be due to lung damage or injury to the heart from not having enough oxygen.
How do I prevent drowning at home?
You should never leave your baby or child alone when they’re in or around water, even for a moment.
- Never leave a young child alone near water or in the bathtub even for a moment. Keep your child within arm’s reach at all times.
- Never leave your baby in the care of other children, only responsible adults.
- If you are bathing a baby or small child and the telephone or doorbell rings, wrap the child in a towel and carry them with you if you can’t ignore it.
- Empty the bath as soon as you take your child out of it.
- Be aware of small bodies of water that might attract your child's attention, such as fishponds, construction sites, spas or hot tubs, ditches, fountains, rain barrels, watering cans, wading pools or buckets. Keep toilet lids closed or lock bathroom doors.
- Cover ponds, birdbaths and water features with wire mesh, or leave them empty until your child is at least 5 years old.
How do I prevent drowning in and around pools?
Around the pool
- Constantly watch small children when they are near water.
- Enforce pool safety rules such as no running near the pool and no pushing others underwater.
- By law, all pools and spas must be fenced and meet Australian safety standards. Remove anything from your backyard that could be used to climb over the pool’s fence. Pool fencing laws also apply to inflatable pools that can hold more than 30 centimetres of water.
- Keep a safety ring and rope at the poolside.
- Use only approved pool safety covers. Some covers can fill with water and children can be trapped underneath.
- Do not store toys in or near pools. A child trying to get the toy may drown.
In the pool
- Teach your children to swim. Babies can start swimming lessons from about 6 months old.
- Never allow kids of any age to swim alone. Supervision means constant visual contact with your child. Children under 5 years should be kept within arm’s reach at all times, even if they are using an inflatable floatation device (such as a ‘floatie’).
- Do not allow young children to use spas and hot tubs. Young children can easily drown or become overheated in them.
- Learn CPR, and make sure that lifeguards or supervisors know CPR.
How do I prevent drowning at beaches, lakes and rivers?
- Make sure children always wear an approved life jacket when swimming in deep water or riding in a boat.
- At the beach, lake or river, always stay with your child while they’re playing in or near the water.
- Only take your child to patrolled beaches where there are surf lifesavers, and only swim between the red and yellow flags.
- For school-aged children, teach them what to do if they need help. Stay calm, float and raise an arm to signal to a lifeguard.
What do I need to be aware of once my baby’s crawling?
Babies are inquisitive, and once they’re mobile they can cover a surprisingly big area in a short space of time. Water bowls for dogs, open toilets, sinks, laundry buckets with soaking clothes and even large pot plant saucers all hold enough water to cause a small child to drown.
If you have a pool, make sure it is fenced and complies with the Australian Standard for safety barriers for swimming pools. Each state and territory also has its own standards which need to be complied with.
Are any flotation devices recommended?
If you use a flotation device on your baby or child, make sure it conforms to Australian Standards for swimming and flotation aids. Always check the label for the recommended size and age, and check to see there are no holes, tears or leaks before using.
No flotation device is a replacement for adult supervision in and around water. At best, they can help a child become more familiar and to build confidence with being in water. They are not for safety.
When should my child learn to swim?
Many parents are keen for their baby to learn to swim.
Baby swimming lessons generally start at around 6 months, but you can take your baby swimming from around 2 months.
There is a risk to very young babies of having swimming lessons too early because they could become cold by being in water which isn’t suitably warm. Water can also pose a safety risk with infections.
A heated pool at a temperature of around 32 degrees Celsius is ideal for babies aged younger than 6 months.
Where can I go to learn resuscitation?
Depending on where you live in Australia, there are several organisations where resuscitation classes are held. Resuscitation guidelines for babies aged under one year are different for older children and adults. St. John conduct first aid training, as does the Australian Red Cross.
Resources and support
To learn more about water safety for babies and children, visit Royal Lifesaving Australia.
Visit Product Safety Australia for more information on mandatory standards on aquatic toys, baby bath aids, portable swimming pools and swimming and flotation aids.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: October 2023