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Inflatable arm floaties are popular, but there’s a better option for your kids that allows them to splish and splash safely: a child life jacket. I’m a parent, and I totally get it. The arm floaties are certainly cute, don’t interfere with their swimming and are easy to pack up and blow up at your destination. However, they’re not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): Floaties “are not a substitute for approved life jackets and can give children and parents a false sense of security,” their guidelines read. In reality, they’re one busted seam away from, well, not floating anymore, says a safety expert.
Life jackets over floaties
“Although arm floaties or water wings might seem like a good idea, as they’re often readily available and inexpensive, they are actually not safe for children who cannot swim,” says Rachel Griffiths, communication director for the Aquatic Safety Research Group. “They can slip off the child or deflate and are not approved by the US Coast Guard as a lifesaving device,” she says. A safer option is a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)-approved life jacket, alongside a good helping of adult supervision.
Despite the common image, life vests for kids are not just for boating adventures and can be used for playing and swimming in the pool, lake or ocean. My oldest, a four-year-old, had the time of his life on vacation earlier this year. The resort pool provided life vests for the kids to use, and I found wearing one really increased his confidence in the water and he could still move unrestricted.
“Many people believe that life jackets hinder learning to swim or create a false sense of security, however, these claims are largely unfounded,” says Griffiths. She adds that the nonprofit Note and Float Life Jacket Fund, where Griffiths serves as President, has found requiring life jackets for non-swimmers at pools significantly increases the number of children learning to swim. “We do not see children drowning while wearing properly-fitting USCG life jackets in swimming pools,” Griffiths says. Water Safety USA also recommends that inexperienced or non-swimmers, as well as children under five who aren’t within arm’s reach of an adult, wear a life jacket in the pool.
How to buy life jackets for kids
In addition to finding a life jacket or vest that is USCG-approved, check the life jacket label for its intended weight range or limit, recommends Emily Samuel, program director for Safe Kids Worldwide.
- Size. Since not all children’s life jackets are the same, be sure to get the appropriate one, whether for an infant, child, or big kid vest, as that will make a difference in terms of the weight supported, fit, and features.
- Fit. When fitting a life vest on your child, Samuel recommends fastening the buckles, straps and zippers. “Gently lift the life jacket at the shoulders. If the child’s chin and ears slip through the neck opening, it may be too big,” she says. Conversely, if the jacket can’t be fastened, it’s likely too small. Aim for a fit that’s snug-but-comfortable, she says.
Best life jackets for kids
To help narrow down your choices, here are eight popular, well-reviewed and USCG-approved life jackets and vests that you can shop right now.
“Babies should always have a life jacket for all water settings,” says Griffiths, noting one of the only exceptions being active swim lessons (when you’re holding them while in the pool). Not only will it help keep the baby safe, but it can also get them used to wearing a life jacket, she says. This infant vest has a pillow support, snug fit and handle at the top for pulling them out of the water quickly, if needed.
Samuel recommends choosing one for young kids that has a neck collar for head support, a strap between the legs and a grab strap at the top. This life jacket fits the bill with all three features.
This unique — and very popular — design has armbands, as well as chest support, to keep little ones afloat. They fit well, there’s a buckle that attaches behind-the-back so only parents can get it on and off and it comes in designs that kids get really excited about.
Well-priced, this kids’ life jacket has an adjustable buckle closure that’s easy to click in place, is lightweight, and is designed with open sides for comfort and freedom of movement. It fits kids starting at 50 lbs.
Available in a variety of colors and a range of sizes (infant, child and youth), this life jacket is designed with adjustable straps made of thick foam, as well as open sides.
Bright colors mean you can keep the kiddos in sight. The grab-handle up top adds an extra layer of safety. A padded head and foam band up top keeps your child floating face up in the water.
7. O’Neill Child Reactor Life Jacket (limited availability)
The perfect turquoise-pink or blue-green design is great for boys and girls. A zip front fits like a wetsuit, the crotch strap keeps them secure, and the quick release safety buckles allow kids to get out when needed.
This life jacket fits children weighing 30 to 50 pounds. The inside contains sculpted PVC foam for fit and function, and the large armholes allow kids to move as they need to. Rapid dry material keeps them dry and afloat.
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