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Puddle Jumpers: More Harm than Good? How floatation devices can be dangerous for your child.

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Jackson drowned at the age of 18 months in 2016

My son, Jackson, wore a puddle jumper when in our backyard pool. We occasionally took it off to work on “swimming”, but he wore it most of the time. I thought it kept him safer in the water. After we lost Jackson to drowning, I kept it for his younger brother to wear. A special hand-me-down. Jackson loved it and I was hoping Asher would, too. When Asher was about 1, I was ready to get it out of Jackson’s special box.

But then something changed. After nearly 2 years of reflection on my son’s fatal drowning, thinking of everything that we did wrong, I discovered that the puddle jumper may have contributed to his death. He wore it in the pool with us 2 days before his drowning accident. 48 hours before we lost him forever (More of his story here). I became curious if other parents who had toddlers drown felt the same way.

Picture from TEAM Member Nicole Highes who lost her son in June 2018

Picure from from Ambassador Kristina Andrews who lost her daughter to drowning in 2017

I conducted a private, anonymous survey through survey monkey. I surveyed 33 parents of children aged 0-6 years old who had a fatal or nonfatal drowning accident:

82% reported that their child could not swim independently.

61% of those were parents of children aged 1-2 years old.

16 of them had a fatal drowning.

61% of parents surveyed reported using a puddle jumper floatation device.

80% of these parents felt there was a connection between their use of a puddle jumper floatation device and their child’s drowning accident.

What is even more astonishing is 8 out of the 20 parents reported that their child was wearing the puddle jumper less than 4 hours before their drowning accident. 14 of those 20 had been swimming in a puddle jumper less than 2 days before their accident. 

Did we set them up to believe they were safe in the water without teaching them the skills to survive?

So, what is wrong with puddle jumpers? They are coast guard approved and designed to keep your child safer in the water. But do they?

Think back to when you first learned how to ride a bike. Odds are you fell several times learning how to balance, peddle and steer all at the same time. But, after repetition, you mastered it. Now, you can ride a bike without even thinking about what you are doing. It has become second nature. This is how muscle memory works.

How does this relate to puddle jumpers and other floaties such as water wings? It becomes a problem with children when we repeatedly use these devices recreationally in a pool. These devices subconsciously “train” your children to be in an upright, vertical position in the water. It trains them to “swim” with their head out of the water and their legs kicking below. It creates a muscle memory to have this posture in the water. Young children believe this is how they “swim”, they do not have the cognitive abilities to recognize that without this device, they would not be able to swim in this position. Without the device, the position they revert to is known as the “drowning position”.

Courtesy of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project

Thinking more about toddler cognitive abilities, let’s discuss another problem these floatation devices cause. When a child feels comfortable in the water, when they feel safe, it creates a sense of security. They develop confidence. They are having fun “floating” around the pool and these devices help them believe they can “swim”. Even worse, it makes them think that they can swim independently. However, this is a false sense of security. They have a feeling of being safer than they really are. Because without this device, they would not be able to swim independently in the pool. Toddlers do not have the cognitive capabilities to understand that they need the device to float in the pool.

Thus, the problem occurs when the child is NOT wearing the puddle jumper. The child is now conditioned to believe that not only can they can swim alone in the pool, but they are supposed to do so in an upright position. BOTH OF THESE ARE VERY DANGEROUS. Most toddler drownings occur during a non-swim time when the child is in the care of one or both parents. Toddlers are curious and naturally drawn to the water. When we set them up to believe it is fun and safe, we are setting them up for an aquatic emergency. Ask yourself this question; “If your child found the pool alone, how would you find them in 5 minutes?” ~JoAnn Barnett, CEO/President of Infant Swimming Resource LLC. Most drownings occur in less than 5 minutes of the child being seen in the home and it takes as little as 20-30 seconds to drown.

So, what should you do? Get in the pool and hold your child in the water. Do not let them believe they are safe in the pool alone. Teach them a healthy respect for the water. Teach them about their own buoyancy; their ability to float. Teach them what happens if they are not being held in the water. Teach them to never enter the pool without an adult. Take them to survival-based swim lessons that emphasize self-rescue. Teach them how to be their own floatation device!

Founding Member Keri Morison's (Live Like Jake) daughter floating

Photo of Ambassador Kristie Kearns daughter floating at 20 months old

Photo from Australian Ambassador Sarah Philpot, her daughter floating

Asher with his dad having fun safely in the pool

Say you have more than one child who cannot swim? You cannot hold all of them at once, I understand. Maybe swimming isn’t the best activity? Sprinklers and splash pads can be just as fun and cool them off in the summer heat. If you must be in the pool and you cannot hold your child, put them in a life jacket. But please, understand that this can have negative effects. Take each child, one at a time, and practice being in the water without it. Get in the pool with them!

Supervise them in a baby pool!

Cooling off at a splash pad

Make sure you always have constant supervision of the children in the pool. If the child somehow gets out of the floatation device and makes it back in the pool, they could drown silently and quickly. Please use as many layers of protection as you can to protect your child.

If on a boat, or open water, please use a coast guard approve personal floatation device. This includes puddle jumpers. In this situation, your child IS actually safer for wearing it. Open water can be unpredictable. Boating can be dangerous. 80% of children under 13 who drowned in boating accidents were not wearing life jackets.

Photo Coutesy of TEAM Member David Drake of his son

To recap, puddle jumpers and other floatation devices can create a false sense of security and a dangerous posture. Please use them when appropriate, but be aware of the risks of repeated wear when swimming recreationally. It is important to know that water is the most dangerous thing to your child under the age of 5. Let’s start treating it that way.

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