But the water is lapping around his face and his body is lifeless.
The boy, in a red T-shirt, blue pants and tiny shoes with Velcro straps, was one of 12 people who drowned off Turkey and washed up on a beach Wednesday.
A photo of him lying alone and being approached by an official has been shared widely around the world, often with the Twitter hashtag #KıyıyaVuranİnsanlık or "Flotsam of Humanity" in Turkish.
Some said they hoped the images of the boy lying on the beach and his limp body being scooped up by a rescue worker could be a turning point in the debate over how to handle the surge of people heading toward Europe.
Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, described the pictures as "haunting."
"Biggest indictment of collective failure," he wrote.
"Shame on the world!" Burhan Akman tweeted from Turkey, adding in another post, "I see human but no humanity."
The boy and his family were Kurds from Syria trying to reach relatives in Vancouver, British Columbia, CNN partner CTV reported.
In addition to the boy, Aylan Kurdi, 3, his brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehen, also died, according to Fin Donnelly, a member of the Canadian Parliament.
The boys' aunt, Tima Kurdi, who lives in Vancouver, had filed refugee paperwork to get her relatives permission to come live in Canada, but the application had been rejected in June, Donnelly told CTV.
Kurdi informed Donnelly that her brother and the children's father, Abdullah Kurdi, called her to tell her that the boys and their mother died trying to make the crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Members of the family told CTV on Wednesday night that they were too distraught to speak to the media.
It appears that in the middle of the night, Tima Kurdi went on Facebook
and posted the horrific image of her nephew dead on the beach and juxtaposed it next to a family photo of the boy smiling shyly, wearing a yellow jacket, his hair neatly combed. He stands shoulder to shoulder with his brother.
Kurdi wrote: "My deepest condolences to my brother's family who suffered a tragic death in search of a better life. Where is the humanity in the world. They did not deserve this. My heart is broken. Rest in peace Angels."
Thousands of migrants have died
Turkish rescue teams were able to save some people aboard the boats, Turkey's governor's office said. Two men and a child who were traveling in the group are missing.
More than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year alone -- making the area the most deadly migrant crossing point
in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration
, which warned last month that the number of deaths was soaring
Nearly three quarters of the world's migrant deaths this year have occurred in the Mediterranean, according to the organization. And the number of deaths in the region so far this year (2,643) is nearly 20% higher than last year (2,223)
Some have drowned. Others have been crushed in stampedes. And some have been asphyxiated by boat engine fumes.
"In the last few weeks we have seen many deaths," Federico Soda, the International Organization for Migration's director for the Mediterranean region, said last week. "We think that this may be explained by the fact that the smugglers are becoming increasingly violent and cruel."
Crisis spurs varied responses
More than 350,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year, seeking sanctuary from war or persecution or poverty or just seeking a better life.
There's been a wildly different response from governments and citizens, some wanting to take people in
, others shutting them out.
"I react with terrible frustration," Antonio Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, told CNN on Wednesday when asked about his response to the image of the toddler found dead on the Turkish beach.
"These people are forced to go on boats, they pay 4,000 or 5,000 euros and they die in these desperate circumstances. This doesn't make sense," he said. "We need to have a coherent response to this situation, and in my opinion, only Europe as a whole, based on solidarity, can give that response."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was to meet Thursday with other members of the European Union to figure out how to cope with the emergency. His nation -- a transit point for migrants trying to make their way north -- has responded by erecting a fence along its border with Serbia.
In Germany, the interior minister will address Parliament after a planned asylum center was burned down.
Czech authorities said Wednesday they've started to remove migrants traveling without documentation from trains. In some instances, Czech police have been marking and numbering the migrants with washable ink.
"We cannot let people without any documents and identification travel through the Czech territory. We have to question them. It's our legal obligation," said Katerina Rendlova, a Czech immigration official. "I know other states are not doing it, letting them pass freely to the next country, but we have laws that don't allow us to do it."
Caught in the middle are the desperate men and women, many with children in tow, who are fleeing in overcrowded, sometimes deadly voyages by land and by sea.