The Lowdown on Lifejackets: Part II
Updated: Feb 16, 2019
If you have read Part I of this article, then you know all about the types and kinds of lifejackets available. Hopefully, you have a good starting place to help pick out the correct life jacket for you and your family.
But, what should you know about kids and lifejackets?
We posed some commonly asked questions to LT Derek Wallin, Commanding Officer of Coast Guard Station Fort Lauderdale. He began his career in the Coast Guard 18 ½ years ago! Thank you for your time sir!
What advice do you have for a parent looking for a lifejacket for their child?
I’ve recently gone through this with my kids, and unfortunately, it’s not a terribly efficient process. Ideally you conduct some research, or have some experience in the types of activities you plan to do out on the water. Are you paddle-boarding, at the beach, in the pool, on a boat, etc. There are different types of life jackets that can be used for different activities. Obviously if you want a child to wear a life jacket for a long period of time, or even a short time, comfort will be a factor in what you choose for them. You want a child to want to wear their lifejacket and not be fighting with them every time they are asked to put one on. Finally, safety is the number one priority so make sure you get a life jacket appropriate to the child’s size and weight. You may have to try multiple life jackets at the store, at home, and in the water to finally find the one that works best for your child. There is not a one size fits all child’s life jacket.
How do you recommend a parent to test a lifejacket on their child?
To properly fit a life jacket start at the store by looking at the manufacturer’s label to ensure your child fits the size and weight requirements. The buoyancy within each jacket is relative to the weight of a person/child within the life jacket, if you select a jacket that is too small it will not be able to keep their body afloat, so this is important and the easiest part of the process. Properly fasten and tighten the jacket using the clips, zippers, or whatever fastening system is available. Have them hold their arms straight up, over their head and then grab the tops of the life jacket arm openings and gently pull up. You are looking to make sure there are no large gaps in the arm openings and that the jacket does not ride up over their face or chin. This is very important because if those gaps are present and if it rides up high there is the possibility of the child slipping out of the life jacket once in the water. If possible, test the lifejacket on your child in the water ensuring that the life jacket does not ride up over the face or chin and that you pay attention to how the lifejacket will react with your child in the water. Due to the different sizes and shapes of every child one life jacket may interact differently than another one will. It is important that you and your child know what to expect from the life jacket. Remember life jackets designed for adults will not work for children, don’t take the easy way out and think your child will be fine in adult life jacket just this once. Accidents happen when you don’t expect them, always wear a life jacket and ensure it is the correct size.
The USCG approves a particular life jacket and classifies it by kind and type. Does this mean that this device is approved for all water activities? Or is it approved for the water activities associated with the type of activity characteristic of the Type I,II,II,IV, or V?
Different life jacket types are preferred for different activities. There are too many activities to go through them all, but usually sports that involve immersion in the water have specialized life jackets for those particular sports. For example when water-skiing there are specific lightweight slim, Coast Guard approved water-skiing life jackets. Using an auto inflatable life jacket is not recommended for sports life water-skiing, wake boarding, etc. This is where research comes into play, know what activities you will be doing on the water and cater your life jackets to those experiences. You may have two different life jackets for different parts of your day.
*Note: Inflatable type life jackets are not intended for children under the age of 16 years. (See Part I)
Does the USCG approve life jackets as learn to swim devices? Or are these approved jackets for life saving purposes while boating?
Life jackets are not regulated as “learn to swim devices”, they are not meant to be used to learn to swim. Life jackets are meant to be carried and WORN while boating. The majority of boating fatalities happen close to shore, in calm water, are unexpected and are caused by drowning. Wearing an approved, fitted life jacket can literally be a life-saver. Almost all life jackets are characterized as “flotation aids” meaning they may or may not keep a wearer’s head above the water.
Lifejacket Bullet Points
First decide what activity you (or your child) will be doing when wearing the jacket
Pick the right size based on their weight, and chest size measurements.
Ensure you have a proper fit!
TEST the jacket on your child BEFORE you begin your water activity.
Teach your child to get themselves onto their back in a floating position in their life jacket. Their life jacket is not designed to do this for them!
COMMON PARENT QUESTION
What's the deal with Puddle Jumpers?
I thought they were Coast Guard approved?
PPCD: Yes, Puddle Jumpers are USCG approved Type V PFDs. Their intended use is as a "flotation device." When worn (with the buckle secured in the back) they are a substitute for a type III PFD.
So what's that mean?
PPCD: Type V means it is a special use PFD. Type III means that is it not designed to turn an unconscious person face up, and there are also associated inherent buoyancy requirements.
Intended uses are
Good for calm, inland water...chance of fast rescue
Designed so that wearing it will complement boating activities.
Comfortable to wear for extended periods of time
Available in bright colors
Wearer may have to tilt head back to avoid going face-down
Will not hold the face of an unconscious wearer clear of the water
Not for extended survival in rough water
Not approved for use on personal water craft, for water skiing, or similar towed uses.
You can see that Puddle Jumpers do have their purpose. They serve as a PFD for a child on a boat in a situation where the chance of rescue will be fast. Let's be clear about one thing.
These are NOT USCG approved devices for learning to swim. The manufacturer claims that Puddle Jumpers are designed to help children learn to swim. But that does NOT mean that the USCG approves them for this purpose. If you have any questions about what your child will actually learn with regards to swimming postures while wearing a Puddle Jumper, please take a look at this illustration below.
This vertical posture is a learned posture. This is what your child will revert to when the Puddle Jumper is removed. This allows water to enter your child's mouth and nostrils. Furthermore, the vertical posture does not create an area large enough to displace water and allow floating. (Think about why and how a large steel ship can float: Archimedes' principle )
Even if your child can wear a Puddle Jumper and lean forward to "swim" their face will still be out of the water, and without the aid of the buoyancy of the PFD (once it is removed...or they remove it) your child cannot maintain that same "swimming" posture, their legs will drop quickly and they will end up in the vertical picture you see above... only this time... look at the picture to the left.
For a child to survive an aquatic emergency alone, they will need to learn how to roll onto their back and maintain a float on their back. Floating expends little energy once the floating posture is obtained. Even this 8 month old can do it. (again think about water displacement)
When your child learns how to swim properly with their face in the water (this maintains a horizontal body posture) using their arms and legs, and they know how to roll onto their backs to float... then they will have achieved another layer of protection against drowning.
Floating around the pool in a Puddle Jumper only reinforces the drowning posture. There is a place for them, on a boat. They are brightly colored, they are comfortable, so your child may be more agreeable with you wearing one. But let's end the confusion. The Unites States Coast Guard has not endorsed these and does not approve them as learn to swim devices.