Baby Accidentally Swallowed Bath Water (I’m Scared of Dry Drowning)

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After a scare of a baby accidentally swallowing bathwater, the term “dry drowning” may slip into your mind and leave you with all-day discomfort and worry. Fortunately, dry drowning and secondary drowning are exceedingly rare and cause definite symptoms for which parents can watch.

Despite concerns about babies drowning hours or days after even minor water-related incidents, it is unlikely to happen if your baby accidentally swallows bathwater. Dry drowning causes noticeable distress within the first hour, while secondary drowning can manifest up to a few days later but will be marked with visible, worsening symptoms.

Read on to find out what you should look for if your baby accidentally swallowed bathwater.

My baby drank bath water – will he be okay?

Children who drink or accidentally swallow bath water are most likely fine. There is consensus in the medical community that dry or secondary drowning deaths are very, very rare.  Many of the sensational dry drowning headlines in the news incorrectly characterize a child’s death as due to dry drowning when it is actually caused by other conditions like infections or heart conditions.

Parents should know that dry drowning deaths are marked by easy-to-spot symptoms that begin within 1 hour of the incident:  

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Change of color
  • Unconsciousness in or out of the water
  • Changes in mental condition
  • Chest skin sucking in as child struggles to breathe

These symptoms require immediate medical attention, and you should call 911 if your child exhibits any of them.

Dry drowning is not a medical diagnosis, but a lay term describing the spasm of the vocal cords that can occur when a child inhales water through the nose or mouth, and is so named because no water enters the lungs. In rare cases, the vocal cords may not relax, causing respiratory distress. The number one sign to watch for is whether your child loses consciousness in the water. If that doesn’t happen, it is very unlikely that your child will experience dry drowning.

Secondary or delayed drowning is actually inflammation of the lungs that may happen hours or days after inhaling water. Death can occur when the swelling impairs lung function and prevents oxygen from entering the bloodstream.  

Much like dry drowning, the symptoms of secondary drowning will be significant and noticeable:

  • Lethargy (especially rapid onset lethargy)
  • Persistent coughing
  • Choking
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing

Simply swallowing water will not cause either dry drowning or secondary drowning; a child must be immersed in water to be at (a very small) risk. 

Baby drank soapy bathwater

Remember, babies under six months should not drink any water.

Because their bodies, and stomachs, are so small, water can disrupt their sodium balance and cause serious medical problems called water intoxication. This is the same reason you should never dilute formula.  

Even older babies and children should not drink bathwater. In addition to the concerns of soap in the water, the bathwater can have bacteria if your baby has defecated in the tub or if the tub is not adequately cleaned.  

Can drinking soapy water make baby sick

Most soaps and bath products made for skin application are minimally poisonous in small quantities, but children can die from drinking soapy water contaminated with soaps intended for household cleaning, like dish or laundry soap.  

What to do if baby drank soapy water

If your baby drinks soapy water, watch for the following signs of soap poisoning:

  • Repeated vomiting or vomiting blood
  • Blood in the stool
  • Low blood pressure
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing or swelling of the throat

If you are in doubt, call poison control at 1-800-222-1222. You can also chat with them online. Barring the presence of the above serious symptoms, no action will be needed.

If you can give your child water without exceeding your pediatrician’s recommended daily intake of water, then do so to head off an upset tummy.

Use non-toxic shampoos and soaps

Shampoos and soaps formulated especially for babies should be used to prevent drying of your little one’s skin and to reduce the risk of danger if bathwater is swallowed.  

Adult soaps and shampoos often contain surfactants under the name of lauryl sulfate or laureth sulfate, and these are detergents that help soaps lather. They are also more likely to cause stomach upset if swallowed.  

Here are some baby-friendly soaps to consider:

Can baby drown after drinking bathwater?

Dry and secondary drowning are remotely possible after a baby drinks bathwater, but parents should primarily be concerned about traditional, or “wet” drowning, which happens when a baby’s mouth is submerged in water. 

According to the CDC, traditional drownings are the leading cause of injury death for children ages 1 to 14. Only birth defects kill more children aged 1 to 4 than drowning.

What is dry drowning?

The term dry drowning is increasingly falling out of favor with the medical community due to the lack of likelihood of the event occurring and the misleading nature of the name that suggests that there is water in the lungs as with traditional drowning.  

The American College of Emergency Physicians says that there are no “medically accepted conditions known as… ‘dry drowning’ and ‘secondary drowning.’”

Dry drowning refers to the reflex that closes the body’s airway to avoid drowning. In this case, it’s an uncontrollable spasm that happens after a potential or near-miss drowning event despite there being no remaining threat.

“Drowning is when you can’t get oxygen into your lungs. Some people misassociate this with swallowing water when you’re in the ocean or in the pool, which results in water going into the stomach. Although this can happen concurrently with water going down into your lungs, that in itself does not truly represent a drowning event,” says Dr. Michael Boniface of the Mayo Clinic.

Signs you should be concerned about dry drowning

Dry drowning is only a possibility when a child has been submerged in water. 

Signs that dry drowning may be a concern after your child has been submerged:

  • Fast or labored breathing is the most concerning symptom of dry drowning, and parents should seek immediate medical attention for their child.
  • Fatigue and vomiting alone are not causes for concern. Fatigue is normal after swimming and if there was no drowning event, your child is simply tired. Vomiting is a natural (but unrelated) response when a child swallows a lot of water.
  • Coughing that remains hours later or does not resolve immediately after a swimming event should be evaluated by a doctor. A few coughs immediately after emerging from the water are normal to clear the airway.

What to do

When parents observe fast or labored breathing or a cough that does not immediately resolve after a drowning event (when your child struggles underwater or is unable to breathe), seek medical attention for your child.  

What is secondary drowning?

Secondary drowning is more commonly called pulmonary edema

Pulmonary edema happens when fluid enters the lungs, collects in the air sacs that comprise the lungs, and causes inflammation that limits oxygen entering the bloodstream.

Pulmonary edema most commonly occurs from heart problems, chest trauma, exposure to toxins, and pneumonia.

Signs you should be concerned about secondary drowning

The following are signs of secondary drowning/pulmonary edema:

  • Difficulty breathing/breathing that worsens when lying down
  • Cough that produces forty sputum or sputum tinged with blood
  • Wheezing or gasping
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Bluish lips
  • Rapid heart beat

What to do

If symptoms suddenly appear, pulmonary edema is life-threatening.  Parents should call 911.

Delayed onset respiratory problems are “exceedingly low” in situations where children do not lose consciousness. It is not caused by swallowing water.

Doctors say that if your child only inhales water while playing in the bath, there’s no need to worry.

It is cause for concern, however, if your child was struggling underwater or unable to breathe.  

Doctors expect that in most situations, parents will have the warning of noticeable symptoms before pulmonary edema becomes life-threatening: “I think this whole dry drowning term has probably created a lot of fear where people imagine someone on dry land and suddenly being overwhelmed, essentially drowning, just as if you’d fallen in a lake or something,” said emergency room physician Dr. Troy Madsen.  “It’s not going to happen like that.”

How to keep baby from swallowing bathwater

Babies can drown in as little as 1 inch of water, so the most important thing all parents need to remember is that children always need close supervision when around water. 

Here are some ideas to help keep your baby from swallowing bathwater:

  • Never leave a child alone in the bathtub.
  • Never rely on other children for bathtub supervision.
  • Distract your baby with bath toys and games. There are even bath books!
  • Play music for a baby bath dance party.

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