Warnings raised about leading cause of kids' accidental deaths: "You can't drown-proof a child"

Devastated parents on drowning dangers

Bode and Morgan Miller's daughter, Emmy, was playing at a neighbor's house when the 19-month-old slipped out unseen, fell into their pool and drowned. "And I opened the door, and she was floating, facedown in the pool," Morgan Miller said. "And I jumped in, and I pulled her out. And I started CPR.

"Every time I close my eyes at night to go to sleep, it replays in my head. It happens so fast."

On the same day, Nicole Hughes lost her 3-year-old son, Levi, in a similar drowning accident. Like Emmy, Levi also found his way outside to a pool. "When I look at pictures of him, it's just so overwhelming to think I will not have any new pictures of him, ever," she said.

Now the two moms, bonded by tragedy, are uniting with water-safety advocates to prevent such drownings. 

Accidental drowning is the leading cause of accidental death among children under 4, said Dr. Ben Hoffman of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He said on "CBS This Morning" that the danger rises from a failure to perceive the risk around water. "And the fact we don't talk about it a lot – it happens," he said.  "It really comes down to the fact that you can't drown-proof a child."

The Millers and Hughes appeared on "CBS This Morning" to talk about the dangers of drowning and the importance of parents being vigilant, even when kids aren't swimming, because such accidents often occur when children slip away and get to a pool.  

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Nicole Hughes (left), and Morgan and Bode Miller. CBS News

"I think a lot of parents feel like it's not going to happen to them because they think it will happen during swim times when they're watching their children," Morgan Miller said. "This truly is an issue, how many parents have reached out to us and said, 'I put my child down for a nap; that was the last time I saw my child alive.'

"And understanding that when even though you're not by the pool, that if you don't have that visual stimulant of water, it's almost like, out of sight, out of mind. … Just putting your child down for a nap, they are curious, they are brilliant, amazing little people, and they can find ways outside, outdoors, out doggie doors, out windows. So, really being aware that even though you're not swimming, it can still happen."

"I think people have a natural awareness of water dangers," said Bode Miller. "As a human being we know it's not our natural element. But there are specific things that just that knowledge alone is a really powerful tool. I think that knowledge is not common practice right now. These drownings are happening not during swim time. I think as a parent those little tidbits of knowledge are things that we can share with each other.

"Once it becomes something that everyone is aware of, we can really prevent these kinds of tragedies, and at the end of the day, what happened to us is horrible for us, and I think a lot of people shared our pain in that. But we want to make it not happen for other people."

Hughes said it was important for parents not to fall prey to the assumption that such tragedies can't happen to them.

"Every time I would read as a parent all these stories, I automatically always looked for the loophole. This isn't me because, oh, they were here, so that's why, OK. Or, I would never let that happen. OK, not me. This tragedy is not mine. It actually does, it really happens. We're involved, attentive parents who loved our children. We love our children and keep them safe. Tragedy does not play favorites."

Hughes hoped that by sharing information with other parents, caregivers, grandparents and friends, "this becomes a village mentality that we are all looking out for each other's kids, like we do with car seats and with everything else that we share."

When asked what it meant for them to meet over tragedy, Hughes said, "It's horrible because we would not have met without losing our babies. So obviously there's that horrific part of it. But this goodness, to be able to have this connection, to have this reminder of the goodness that is still in the world through this relationship, through this friendship – with both of them – it's been a lifeline. I can't imagine not only this movement, this conversation that we're starting about drowning prevention, but from a grief standpoint and just knowing that we are going to survive this, one second at a time."

Morgan Miller said, "We usually know when the other person is feeling down in grief, [even though] it's such an individual process. Somehow we've been on the same page for most of this journey, which has been inspiring and amazing. To be able to have someone besides obviously our spouses has been incredible."

Bode Miller added that conversations with others about loss has helped removed the stigma over talking about a difficult subject. "We have people come up to us who [find] it's really hard to address. They don't know what to say and they don't want to cause you more pain and they don't want to dodge around the subject. The fact is, breaking that stigma and making it a conversation you can have with parents who have, unfortunately, experienced it firsthand is, I think, one of those really important steps.

"And it helps to have people who [feel] there is no stigma there, because they've gone through it, even if they're at different stages. It's an open conversation. You know that laughing and joking – it doesn't mean it's gone; it's just part of our lives now."

To watch the full video click on the player above. 

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.