8 life jacket tips that can save your child’s life

If you don’t have this life-saving water gear for your child, it’s time to invest.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Your kids can’t wait to start splashing. They’ve got sunscreen, water toys and goggles—but what about a proper life jacket? Not just reserved for boating, life jackets are crucial around pools and open water, especially for your littlest fish. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that all infants and toddlers weighing at least nine kilograms should wear a life jacket (or personal floatation device, PFD) when playing in or around water. (There are no life jackets or PFDs approved for use in Canada for infants less than nine kilograms; they should be held by an adult). Kids can drown in as little as one inch of water, and children between one and four years old are considered most at risk. In fact, drowning is the second most common cause of death for children under five years old.

To keep your little ones safe, it’s important that life jackets or PFDs fit properly and include the right features. Keep these life jacket safety tips in mind.

1. Make sure it meets safety standards
The life jacket or PFD you use should meet Canadian safety regulations (check for a label from Transport Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada). Life jackets and PFDs are similar in that they both strap around the torso; however, life jackets are designed to flip a person from face-down to face-up in the water, while PFDs do not have this feature. Remember that pool and swim toys (noodles, inflatable rings, water wings or bathing suits with floats in them) are not considered standard water safety gear and should not replace a life jacket.

2. Choose the size based on your kid’s current weight
Kids’ life jackets are sized by weight, starting at nine kilograms or more—in Canada, there are no safety approved life jackets or PFDs for infants who weigh less than nine kilograms. Do not purchase a bigger life jacket for your child to “grow into”—make sure your child is the correct weight for the life jacket you buy. It should be snug, but not so tight that you can’t do up the zipper and buckles. You should not be able to lift the life jacket up to your child’s ears or over their head.

3. Go bright
When it comes to life jacket safety and colour—the brighter, the better. Vivid colours like orange and yellow ensure that your child is clearly visible in and around the water.

4. Get all the right features
The Canadian Red Cross recommends the following features in kids’ life jackets and PFDs:

  • A large collar to support your child’s head
  • A looped grab strap on the collar for easy grabbing
  • Durable, functioning, rust-proof (plastic) buckles and zippers, waist-ties with snug-fitting drawstrings or elastic in front and back, and a safety strap that fastens between your child’s legs to keep the jacket in place.
  • Add reflective tape to increase visibility and a plastic whistle for emergencies. (And teach him how to blow it—your kid likely won’t mind practicing).

5. Put life jackets on, not just near your child
Life jackets and PFDs are meant to be worn, not just near a child or in a boat with a child.

6. Don’t let life jackets replace adult supervision
Toddlers should always be supervised and within arms reach when in or near water, and infants less than 9 kilograms should be held by an adult (as there are no safety-approved infant life jackets). Transport Canada recommends that infants and toddlers should be at least nine kilograms and able to wear a life jacket before boarding a boat.

7. Don’t use life jackets as cushions or toys
Sitting on a life jacket or using it for another purpose can squish the inner material, making it less effective and no longer up to safety standards. Store life jackets in a dry area to ensure they stay in good working condition.

8. Test it out
Every time you zip your kid into it, check the life jacket over for wear and tear, such as broken fasteners, buckles, straps or zippers, and make sure all are in good condition. Replace the life jacket if you find rips. Every summer, ensure your child’s life jacket fits properly and that he can freely move his arms and easily breathe, move, bend over and sit in it. Also make sure he can walk and see the ground without tripping.

In the water, test life jacket safety by wading in with your child until he’s at chest level. Assist him as he brings his knees up and floats on his back. Make sure the life jacket keeps your child’s head safely above water and that he can breathe. While beside your child, have him practice swimming in the life jacket on his back and tummy.

Video courtesy of the Canadian Safe Boating Council.

Joelene Huber is a paediatrician and assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Toronto and is affiliated with St. Michael’s Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children, specializing in development and autism spectrum disorders. She appears regularly on TV and is a mom to two small children. Follow her on Twitter at @uberhealthykids.

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