It’s summer, and that means many sunny afternoons spent in the water. Whether you’re boating on the lake or just frolicking in a backyard pool, it’s important to equip kids with the appropriate flotation devices. But which type do you choose? With all the different names of flotation devices and swim aids, it can get a tad confusing. This guide will explain some of the differences between life jackets, swim aids, and other devices available to help you make the best decision and to insure that your water play is both fun and safe. As always, use good judgement since every child is different in terms of swimming skills and how well a certain flotation device fits them.
Note: While life jackets are available in all sizes (from infant to adult), Puddle Jumpers, swim vests, and other swimming aids are most often meant for children in the 30-50 lb. range. To see our recommendations, click here.
What is a life jacket?
A life jacket is a personal flotation device, PFD, which is made of a buoyant, waterproof material that keeps your head above water. Life jackets are especially important when boating or swimming in deep, open water, and in most states, they are required by law for children under the age of thirteen when in a water craft. Life jackets are sold in most sporting goods stores as well as in department stores, but you need to read the product information carefully, The most important characteristic of a life jacket is that it is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. These jackets have been tested extensively to make sure they perform as expected. When purchasing a life jacket, you want to make sure that it says “coast guard approved.” In addition, The U.S. Coast Guard includes an instructional pamphlet with each approved life jacket that details exactly how it should be worn and also gives information on other water safety concerns.
Life jackets come in several different types; each suitable for different boating situations. Type II jackets are less comfortable to wear but more buoyant. They are recommended for situations where a boater might be alone or away from immediate rescue should something go wrong. In children, they can be used for non-swimmers or children who are not entirely comfortable in the water. Type III jackets are more comfortable and easier to wear, but they are not as buoyant. The are often worn on ski boats or in situations where multiple people are boating together. They are recommended for children who know how to swim because they will keep your head above water, but they won’t necessarily flip you on to your back like more buoyant jackets will. It is also important to note that, in recent years, the Coast Guard has approved several styles of inflatable life jackets. However, these are not approved for children under the age of sixteen.
What is a Puddle Jumper?
A Puddle Jumper is a combination life jacket, swim aid, and swim vest. Made by Stearns, it’s one of the most popular swim aids of all time. Based off the old school “arm floaties”, it improves on the design by attaching the floaties to a mini vest which straps around the child’s chest to keep it secure. It’s designed for small children, most often between 30 and 50 pounds, and constructed of a comfortable material that prevents chafing and makes it easy for your child to wear. Puddle Jumpers keep both the chest and arms afloat which helps promote a natural swimming position. Your child slips his or her arms through the arm floats of the puddle jumper, and then it is buckled behind the back to secure it.
Puddle jumpers are approved by the Coast Guard and are considered a type III personal flotation device. The recently introduces Body Glove Puddle Pals line looks to improve on the Puddle Jumper design by adding a shoulder harness to keep the swim aid in place even better. Time will tell which design will prove to be more popular but it’ll be hard to catch up with the huge head start the Stearns Puddle Jumper has.
What is a swim vest?
A swim vest is not considered a personal flotation device but a swim aid. This means that it is designed to help children who are learning to swim or who are not yet completely comfortable in the water. It is not guaranteed to keep a child’s head above water, and it is not Coast Guard approved. Swim vests come in several sizes and are normally constructed of a neoprene material to help with both buoyancy and warmth. The vest normally zips up the front and often has a strap that goes between the legs and buckles to the vest to keep it securely on your child. These vests are great for children learning to swim with close adult supervision. They can help give your child confidence in the water without being cumbersome or uncomfortable.
No matter your situation, it is important to teach your children the importance of water safety before you even set foot in a pool or lake. This knowledge combined with the appropriate flotation device might just save their life. Also, parents should never count on a life jacket or other PFD but should always be present and observant while children are swimming. Water activities can be a great summer family activity, but always remember your flotation devices, and help your children have a fun and safe summer.