Summer Series Part 5: Updated March 2017
A follow-up to Part 4: Best Insect Repellent for Kids
Summer is here, friends! Hopefully you’ll take a well-deserved vacation or at least hit the pool.
Life Jacket Basics
Whether you’re boating or just playing around at the pool, life jackets (also called PFDs – personal flotation devices) give parents an extra layer of protection against accidental drowning, which is the 2nd leading cause of death in children under 14.* It goes without saying that your little one should always be under close supervision, even with a life jacket.
Your garden-variety life jacket for an infant is a Type II PFD, which is for “near shore” rescue (as opposed to Type I, which is for rough, offshore conditions, and a longer rescue wait time). Type II jackets have head and neck support, which will typically upright an unconscious person – or a young child with poor body control – in the water. Thus, these are preferred for infants and young toddlers.
The big downside to Type II vests is that they are very bulky and restrictive – especially around the neck – and most kids initially resist when donning it for the first time. Not to worry though; with enough repetition, they’ll get used to it over time.
Completing the set, a Type III device is a “flotation aid” that can be used for preschoolers who have more body control and some swimming skills, with the caveat that they will not automatically turn a child upright in the water when immersed.
Most life jackets for children 30+ lbs are Type III devices. When boating, especially in rough seas, I’d always opt for a Type II device no matter how good of a swimmer your child is.
We’ll discuss both types below.
Generally speaking, children under 13 are required to wear a life jacket while a vessel is underway, unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. *Laws vary by state.
It’s generally not advised to take babies on boats, although many find this to be overly conservative (especially for families who LIVE on boats). Per the US Coast Guard, “The PFDs currently available for newborns up to 18 pounds may not provide a proper fit to perform as expected. Unless the parent is able to test their newborns out in a PFD, sized for infants, in a swimming pool, they will not know if that device will float their child with his/her head out of the water. You must be sure you know the PFD you have works for your infant. Otherwise, we recommend the child not be exposed to any risk in a boat on the water.”
Bottom line: Test your baby’s life jacket beforehand in a pool or another controlled environment to make sure it works as intended.
Best Life Jackets
All of the following life jackets are Coast Guard approved and may be used while boating. Always be sure to check the label on your child’s life vest to see which activities it’s approved for.
Make sure your child’s life jacket fits properly by having him/her make a “touchdown” signal by raising both arms straight up. If the life jacket hits a child’s chin or ears, it may be too big or the straps may be too loose.
Infant/Toddler Life Vests – up to 30 lbs (which is up to 2 or 3 years old)
Also available at Walmart.
This Coast Guard approved Type II vest has all the necessary safety features, including a pad behind the head and a crotch strap to keep it from riding up. It’s made of durable nylon and has a rescue handle for parents to easily lift their child from the water. Many agree that this vest is not the most comfortable, but overall, this is a good quality infant/toddler vest and modestly priced to boot.
Stohlquist Infant/Toddler Nemo Life Jacket ~ $48, Editor’s Choice
Also available at REI
Another Coast Guard approved Type II vest in the same weight category, the Stohlquist Infant/Toddler Nemo Life Jacket is less bulky than the Stearns Infant Classic, and reviewers gush about how comfortable it is to wear all day and even take naps in.
This durable jacket is perfect for boating and the large grab handle is good for hanging the jacket on a hook or retrieving your child from the water. If you spend a lot of time on the water, the Nemo is a worthwhile investment.
Child Life Jackets: for children 30-50 lbs
Stearns Kids Puddle Jumper Basic Life Jacket ~ $20 – MUST-HAVE
The ever-popular Stearns Puddle Jumper IS Coast Guard approved as a learn-to-swim aid for pools, lakes, beaches and also approved for boating. This jacket is great for 3 to 6-year-olds who can’t swim very well, although some readers noted that their 2-year-olds fit in it as well (Alice is 2.5 and LOVES it). For those taking multiple children to the pool and such, this is a must-have.
Children get more freedom of movement with this device because there’s nothing constrictive around their head and neck; parents like it because it keeps their child upright in the water.
For children 30-50 lbs
The Stearns Classic Series Vest is also available at Sears.
Tied for second place, both the Stearns Child’s Classic Series Vest and Overton’s Children’s Nylon Vest are decently priced and Coast Guard approved Type III PFDs, which means they’re okay for boating (but don’t support the neck in the back like a Type II device). Each jacket is good quality and has a crotch strap, which secures the vest and prevents it from riding up.
Comfortable and stylish it is not, but this Type II jacket *should* upright a child who has fallen into the water, unlike its Type III counterparts. On the bright side, it’s cheap and easy to stack!
Finally, thanks to all those who weighed in on life jackets on Facebook!
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