Troubled Waters – how long does it take a toddler to drown?

Five seconds of distraction is all it takes for Claire Hewitt’s toddler daughter to get into deep trouble. This morning I didn’t know how many seconds it would take a 24-month-old to drown.


Laden with towels, outfits, drink bottles, snacks, phone, nappies, wallet, keys – the usual – I went to the side of the local swimming pool with my five-year-old and my toddler. The three of us were in our bathers and ready to get in.

We go to the pool regularly, and I am always over-cautious. The kids are never out of my sight. I am proudly the ‘helicopter mum’ at the best of times, and I am even more so when we are near water.

In less than a second, she had just slipped in

Usually, we sit on the side of the pool for 30 seconds and then all slide in as we get used to the water. Usually, two-year-old Immy is wearing a pink swimming vest. As I placed the bags down, I turned to give my five-year-old her goggles. I turned back to give Immy hers, but Immy was gone. In less than a second she had just slipped in. No life vest.

I jumped in straight away and grabbed her. After her coughing stopped, she said, “Oh, Mummy, I go under, I go underwater. I swim.” All up, it may have been less than five seconds that she was in the water, and she was scooped out in plenty of time.

But my heart was racing.

What if I hadn’t turned back to Immy to pass the goggles? What if I had mucked about propping up the bags and preparing the towels for when we got out? There were plenty of people at the pool, and no-one saw her slip in. The lifeguard was on the other side of the pool and didn’t notice.

Immy swims regularly and was kicking up and breaking the surface when I saw her little face struggling away, but she had no idea how to grab the edge in front of her. It had all occurred so quietly. She had just climbed silently over the little wall and slid in. No splash, no ‘yippee’ like an older child, no splashing about to get attention. Just a silent little body flapping away under the surface.

A timely reminder

Thankfully, there was no real emergency today. Immy was happy enough to keep swimming and jumping in and has not lost any confidence in learning to swim. But it was a timely reminder of why drowning is still one of the highest causes of death in little Aussie kids.

And how long does it take to drown? Well, my research tells me it starts from when you lose consciousness, which is a couple of minutes, but less in a toddler. And although actual death may take up to 10 minutes, significant levels of brain damage set in along the way. I hope none of us ever has to find out.

Illustration by David Procter