Parents, When Does Your Child Really Need A Life Jacket?

Last updated on August 29th, 2015 at 10:01 pm

Wearing-a-life-jacketWhen you think of a life jacket, that sturdy vest that keeps you afloat, you probably think of large boats.  While it is true that you should ALWAYS wear a life jacket when you are on a boat, a life jacket has far more uses for keeping you and your children safer around water.  Today we are going to talk about when to wear a lifejacket, what constitutes a real life jacket, and how to convince the (usually male) disbelievers to wear a lifejacket.

Let’s start with the obvious, wearing a life jacket on a boat, because too many people still leave the life jacket sitting next to them ‘in case I need it’.  70% of boating fatalities result from drowning, and 85% of those who drown are not wearing a life jacket.  It doesn’t matter if you have a little Sunfish sailboat for tooling around a small lake, a ski boat, a fishing boat, or a 90 foot ocean-going Oyster, if you end up in the water unexpectedly because you trip, are hit by the boom, get knocked by a wave, are dizzy from sunstroke, or any other unexpected accident, your odds of drowning are really high.  Even if you see the person go in, think for a minute how hard it is to see a wet head in the water if they aren’t also wearing a life jacket, much less how difficult it is to retrieve the person when they are shocked, cold, and maybe injured.  Even if you can get back to them and haul them onboard in a matter of minutes, they may already have started the process of drowning. My mom rule is that if you are above deck, you have a life jacket on, even docked or at anchor.  And if it’s rough weather, it stays on, period.  The new life jackets are light and comfortable, it’s not a hardship.  Granted, if you are on one of those huge passenger ferries or a cruise ship, no one expect you to parade around all day in a lifejacket, but do know where they are kept and if you have a child, know where the child-sized jackets are stored.  For your own recreational boating, click here  to learn about Coast Guard approved lifejackets, the only type of lifejacket you should ever trust with your child’s life, and your own life.  If you are traveling, call ahead and ask, many places have life jacket loaner programs, so you don’t necessarily have to invest yourself.

What most parents don’t think about is when lifejackets should be used off of boats.  If you have an inexperienced or weak swimmer, a very young child, or anyone with physical or mental limitations, have them wear a life jacket whenever they are near water.  If you are in a pool and at arm’s length, it isn’t necessary, but for a day at the beach or the lake, at one of those fabulous big resort pools, or even if you just have more than one child to watch, a life jacket adds a layer of safety and peace of mind.  It is almost impossible for anyone, even vigilant lifeguards, to see beneath the surface of rough water, so better to keep the head above water in the first place.  Children forget they can’t swim, they jump in or walk until they are over their heads, or just get tired, and next thing you know, they are bobbing just beneath the surface.

You may be thinking, I’m covered, I picked up a great floatation suit at the store, or always have those inflatable arm bands in our bag.  First anything inflatable.  If it inflates, it deflates.  Those inflatable arm bands are still sold everywhere, because the water safety field hasn’t gotten the message out there, but if you have some, do me a favor, pick up the scissors and drive a hole right through them before you put them in the garbage.  Not only can they deflate, especially at a beach or in rough water, but they really limit a child’s arm motion if they are trying to swim.  I’m all in favor of having fun in the water, and inflatable rafts and rings and toys can be great fun, but they are for fun, not for safety.  Inflatable arm bands aren’t even for fun.  If you have a question about any floatation suit or vest you have, see if there is a label saying it is Coast Guard approved.  Or go directly to the Coast Guard website to learn more. A true life jacket can turn an unconscious person onto their back so their face is not in the water.

There is the gray area of a child who is over-confident in the water but doesn’t have solid swimming skills, or has the skills but not the confidence.  For this child, you really want them in the water practicing their skills, under your supervision, but a life jacket may be too restrictive.  My go-to is still the SwimFin. It’s a shark-shaped fin that straps securely around a child’s middle.  A UK-product, it has passed the European Union flotation regulations, except that it is still not a life jacket, because it won’t keep someone on their back if they are unconscious.  I would never use SwimFin in the ocean or any other open water that has a current, a tide, or waves, but for a pool when you want to play more safely, it is absolutely brilliant.  It changed one of our vacations from my daughter saying ‘I’m bored, I want to go back to the room’ to my having to beg to get her out of the pool at the end of the day.  I still kept an eagle eye on her, but it gave her the freedom to practice her strokes and jumps.  Her swimming skills and confidence improved exponentially and appropriately on that trip.  Major bonus, all the kids at the pool wanted to wear one because it looks so cool.

Finally, how to you convince the ‘I’m too cool to wear a life jacket’ members of your family (statistically the males).  For them, I have two videos to recommend.  Both tried and tested within my family.  For the younger males, have them watch this ‘Heroes Wear Life Jackets’ video that features Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers.  My son said he was definitely more likely to wear a life jacket after watching – because it makes life jackets cool.

For the older males, here is an award-winning interactive video that simulates what happens when you are knocked into the water.  You have to keep scrolling to stay alive.  I admit I couldn’t watch for long, but the guys I work with said it got pretty graphic and frightening.  But, it did convince one of the most recalcitrant non-jacket-wearing avid boaters I know to start wearing a life jacket.  I didn’t push or nag, just forwarded the link in an email and said, ‘thought you might find this interesting’.  Sometimes all it takes to change behavior is a slight nudge in the right direction and someone else explaining why they need to change.

About the Author

Global water safety for children is my passion and I can't wait to get up every day to work at it! I blog about water safety regularly at http://www.RebeccaWearRobinson.com, or you can follow me on Twitter at RebeccaSaveKids. Rebecca is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team

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