- Must-have accessory. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, all children under 13 years of age must wear a life jacket when a boat is under way, unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. (Note: State regulations may vary.). The Sea Tow Foundation takes this a step further by recommending kids wear a life jacket at all times when they are aboard a boat or even on the dock.
- Let’s go shopping. While adults may wear the same life jacket for several years as long as it’s in good condition, children can outgrow their PFD (Personal Flotation Device) in the course of a single summer. If this happened with your children, now is the time to take them to a marine store to pick out new life jackets. If you plan to let them take friends along on your boat, we suggest buying an extra child’s life jacket or two as well.
- Be size-wise. Don’t make the mistake of putting your child in an adult life jacket or inflatable belt-type PFD. Check the labels for models labeled Youth, Child or Infant, and be sure to select one that is right for your child’s weight category. Infant PFDs are designed with a high collar to keep the baby face up and head supported in the water; they also have a strap between the legs for added security.
- Heads Up. Life jackets are designated Type I, II, III or V, depending on the amount of buoyancy they provide and the water conditions they are designed to perform in. Look for a child’s life jacket that suits your boating style and locations. Type I Offshore PFDs offer the most buoyancy, but they also can be bulky and restrict the wearer’s movements, prompting kids to want to take them off. Type II Near-Shore PFDs, Type III PFD Flotation Aids, and Type V Special Use Devices (designed for wakeboarding and other water sports) are often more comfortable, but don’t always offer as much buoyancy or stability.
- Snug as a bug. Be sure your child’s life jacket fits snugly.Too big, and it will ride up over his or her head in the water; too small, and it won’t provide enough buoyancy. To properly fit a child, put the life jacket on her or him and fasten it properly. Ask the child to raise his or her arms overhead, grasp the tops of the jacket’s arm openings and gently pull up. If you can pull the jacket up too high, creating excess space above the arms, or it rides up over the child’s chin or face, put it back on the rack and try the procedure again with a smaller size.
- Everybody into the pool. A good way to get children used to the feeling of wearing a life jacket is by letting them use it in the pool or shallow lake or river before you go boating. Tell them it’s essential boater’s gear, just like a scuba diver’s BC vest or a fireman’s helmet.
Of course, the most important tip of all is to be sure the kids actually wear their life jackets every time you go boating – and for the adults to do the same in order to set a good example!