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Want to prevent drownings? Don't let kids play breath-holding games

Posted June 1
Updated June 2

The YMCA of the Trianlge has placed these signs at local pools to warn against popular breath-holding games.

Here's a surprising way to prevent drowning this summer: Stop those breath-holding games that kids love to play in the pool.

If you've ever been around kids in a pool, you've probably seen the games. Kids - of all ages - bop up and down out of the water, counting to see how long somebody can hold their breath. Once a friend comes up, they go down, starting the count all over again.

But it's not all fun and games. In fact, it's such a concern that a couple of years ago the YMCA of the Triangle started placing signs at pools, warning against the games. Jeff Little, who leads the aquatics team at the A.E. Finley YMCA and the YMCA at Knightdale Station, said he's seen video of the tragic results of these games.

"This is the new 'no diving,'" said Little, referring to the ubiquitous signs around pool decks that warn against diving in shallow parts of pools. Those signs have led to fewer spinal injuries.

Now, pool operators around the country are hoping to prevent the tragedies that can happen when swimmers of all ages playing breath-holding games. The problem with the games are two-fold.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report finds that "dangerous underwater breath-holding behaviors" do lead to involuntary drowning in otherwise healthy people. Swimmers can suffer from "breath-hold blackout," which can lead to death.

The group Shallow Water Blackout Prevention tracks victims of underwater blackouts and is working to educate parents and kids about the risks of breath-holding games. The organization was founded by the mother of a young man, who died in his family's swimming pool while doing breath-holding training. The  group has support from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman, among others.

What's more, other swimmers, seeing a child underwater for a long period of time, might think she's simply holding her breath when, in fact, she's struggling - or worse. Little has seen the videos.

"Children would go under and look at the child and think that they were playing a game and the child was really not in a good situation," Little said.

Banning breath-holding games is one way to prevent some of the more than 3,500 deaths by drowning each year in the United States. Among those deaths, about one in five are children ages 14 and younger, according to the CDC. We've seen that play out in local news headlines in recent days. In the past week, three young children have died by drowning in a neighborhood pool or a golf course pond.

To prevent drowning, swimming skills do help. In fact, the agency says that taking part in formal swimming lessons reduces the risk of drowning among kids ages 1 to 4.

Even the youngest children can learn skills and a respect for the water when they take swim lessons, Little said.

Starting at six months, babies can take parent-child classes at the YMCA to get children acclimated and comfortable around the pool. At the same time, instructors can talk to parents about safe practices around water and opportunities to teach children that the water can be fun - as long as an adult is with them. "I have 10-month-old twins," Little said. "The other night, my son learned how to splash. That was a step in the right direction. He thought it was the coolest thing. It just depends on when the child is ready and what they are going to react to."

From age 18 months to three years, kids can begin to learn more, including breath control, kicking, floating, splashing, floating and other introductory water skills.

From age three to age five, kids can start becoming more independent in the water. They'll learn how to go underwater; master floating on their back; learn to doggy paddle and, in some cases, the freestyle stroke; and start to tread water. "Maybe, when you're getting a little bit more advanced, you can try to see how deep you can go," Little said.

Still, just because a child has had swimming lessons doesn't mean that he's ready for solo trips into the deep end. Little and other safety experts say that parents should stay within arm's reach of any young child or weak swimmer, regardless of age.

Little said it's important for parents to make children feel comfortable in the water, but, at the same time, hammer home the message that they can only go in the water with mom, dad or another caregiver.

Other tips from Little:

Pay attention to your kids in the pool. Tragedies happen when an adult thinks they're watching their young child in the pool, but gets caught up chatting with a friend at the edge. The adult may think she's watching her child, but it only takes a few seconds for a child to get into deep water ... and danger.

Don't expect your child to have the same skills just because they took swim lessons last year. Your child may have been swimming like a champ last summer after lessons and endless days at the pool. But, if they haven't been in a pool since last September - and haven't taken any swim classes since then - it's likely they've lost some of those skills. Sign them up for lessons in the spring or early summer to ensure they are pool ready. The YMCA has lesson for all ages.

Drowning is silent. "It's more often quiet, not shouting like you see in the movies," Little said. And Little said parents should be particularly mindful of "dry drowning," a phenomenon that can happen hours after a child may have been briefly submerged in the pool or even the tub. "You'll think that nothing is wrong, that they just spit up a little bit and go about their day," Little said. In fact, the water can be in their lungs and can impact their breathing hours later. A Today show article shares more tips on what to look for.

Make sure everybody knows how to swim. That includes adults. The YMCA does offer swim lessons for adults, including occasional free programs for all ages. "A lot of times, we'll have adults bring their children and they find out that the parent doesn't want to go near the water," Little said.


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  • Bradley Green Jun 4, 2:57 p.m.
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    In the original CDC study, none of the deaths were attributable to children playing breath-holding games. All of the deaths occurred in older experienced swimmers who were breath-holding as part of their training. There is no evidence in this CDC report or the "Shallow Water Blackout Prevention" website to indicate that this is a phenomenon among children playing breath holding games. Even the YMCA's notice seems to be targeting swimmers, not children. This is FAKE news.

    As noted by another commenter, the most important thing parents can do is make sure their kids are always watched in the pool. Breath holding games aside, pools are dangerous for many reasons, and drownings can occur in any amount of water. Watch your kids, and please ignore flashy news stories that don't have evidence to back up their claims.

  • Sarah Hall Jun 2, 9:48 a.m.
    user avatar

    Janet - Thank you for sharing your story. So very scary. I'm so glad everything turned out OK.


  • Janet Ghumri Jun 2, 8:36 a.m.
    user avatar

    As the (extremely lucky) mother of a near deadly drowning of my youngest son, at age 5.5 years, i can attest to how quickly this can happen, and the fear that remains with me even 15 years later. In my son's case, it was a mixture of being overtired and an older child removing his life jacket. In one moment he sunk, and being overtaxed he told me later "i looked up and could see the sun in the water, and everybody swimming, but i wasn't able to kick my legs anymore". This was after about an hour and a half in the water. He had taken swim lessons for 3 years. (Being very small for his age he was never advanced from the 'guppy' class). I WAS LESS THAN 20 FEET AWAY, WATCHING AND HEAD COUNTING. His life jacket was behind the diving board, it happened in the blink of an eye, really, that fast. I know I'm one of the fortunate moms, i remembered my CPR, and was able to revive him pool side, but he was blue when he was brought up from the bottom. Please, be vigilant and over cautious!