Getting kids to wear life jackets can be a cumbersome task — bulky neon padded vests don't exactly shout cool. But the risks of not wearing them are too great to ignore. The Center for Disease Control reports drowning to be the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death amongst children ages 1-14 behind motor vehicle crashes. 

Help protect your kids by outfitting them with the right life vests, or personal flotation devices (PFDs).

Rules and Regulations

Life jacket laws vary widely from state to state. Some require that life vests be worn by those under age 6, while in other states the age is 14. In some states, anyone on a boat, regardless of their age, must be wearing a personal floatation device. Check out the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators for a breakdown of state-by-state rules. (Note: if your state has no life-jacket laws, all children under 13 must wear one if the boat is underway, according to US Coast Guard rules.) Regardless of the local rules, it's always safer for everyone to be wearing a lifejacket when out on the water.

Types of Life Vests for Children

There are 5 different kinds of life jackets, according to the US Coast Guard, but only 3 types are approved for children:

  • Type One —Offshore Life Jacket: These life vests are designed for rough seas and harsh open water conditions for an extended period of time while awaiting rescue.  If a person becomes unconscious, these buoyant vests are meant to turn them facing upwards.  Offshore life jackets are bulky, however, and uncomfortable to wear for regular outings.
  • Type Two — Near-Shore Buoyant Vest: Often orange, these slightly less bulky vests are suitable for most boating activities that occur near land, where conditions are calmer and rescue time is significantly lower. These vests will likely turn an unconscious person facing upwards like the offshore life jacket.
  • Type Three — Flotation Aid: These are the least burdensome and most comfortable life vests, meant to be worn for a long period of time. They are not made to hold up in rough seas or in the open water.
  • Type Four is a throwable PFD that is required on all boats.  It's usually a cushion with straps. This is not a substitute for a lifejacket for a child.
  • Type Five is comprised of inflatable and hybrid life jackets that will either automatically inflate in the water or will need to be inflated manually. They should not be worn by children under 16 and are not recommended for non-swimmers. Hybrid vests combine buoyant material with inflatable components, reducing bulk and allowing for greater comfort.  They come in child sizes but must be checked out regularly for damage. 

Most of the time, types two and three are ideal for recreational boating activities

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Choose the Best Fit

Outfitting children with a USCG-approved life vest is just the first step to ensuring their safety on the water. Involving children in the purchasing process will help them choose a vest that they want to wear.  Follow these steps to find the perfect fit:

  • The USCG requires children to wear life vests that meet their correct size and weight range. Check the label on the life jacket to make sure it matches up.
  • Adjust the life jacket so that it fits snugly when fastened. If it's too loose or big, it could slip off.
  • Give it the arm test: have the child raise her arms straight above her head and pull on the top of the arm openings.  If the life jacket rides up over her chin or face, it's too big.
  • While there are life jackets designed for babies, The USCG advises against bringing infants on recreational boats, since it can be difficult to find a life vest that fits them securely.

Test the Waters

Take your child out for a practice swim in shallow water. Allowing her to swim with the life vest on in a safe environment will help prepare her for how it will behave in the water.

Most drownings happen in calm waters close to land when the person was not wearing a life vest.  It's important to select the right life jackets for your children, but even more important to make sure that they are wearing them.  Stay safe and have fun on the water with your kids.