Life Jackets for Kids | Ultimate Guide
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Guide to Life Jackets for Children

A quality life jacket is one of the most important pieces of safety equipment you can have with you when you’re out on the water. While many adults choose not to wear a life jacket at all times for a variety of reasons, when you have children aboard your vessel, it’s important to ensure that they’re adequately protected in the event of an emergency.

If someone goes overboard, however unlikely, a properly sized life jacket that’s in good working condition can quite literally save their life. Especially when it comes to children, who may not be strong swimmers, wearing a life jacket while on the water is of the utmost importance.

But with so many different kinds of children’s life jackets out there and so many different rules and regulations to wade through, it can be tricky to determine exactly what kind of personal flotation device you should have for your kids when on the water. So, to help you out, we’ve got your guide to life jackets for kids, complete with all the info you need to have a great time on the water. Here we go!

Requirements for Life Jacket Use: Federal and State Laws

If you spend a lot of time out on the water, you’re probably well aware that there are a whole host of laws and regulations in effect to help ensure the safety of you and everyone around you. While boating safety laws can feel like a hassle or a nuisance sometimes, they are in place to protect all boaters by reducing the likelihood of an accident and by ensuring that boaters are better prepared to handle any emergencies that arise.

Rules regarding the use and maintenance of personal safety and rescue equipment, such as life jackets are of the utmost importance because they can make a huge difference in a rescue situation, should an emergency arise.

But with so many rules and regulations out there, both at the federal and state level, we understand that it can be difficult to determine what exactly is expected of you as a boat owner. Thankfully, the rules surrounding children’s life jacket use aren’t too terribly complicated, but there are some important differences you should take note of, depending on where you plan to go boating.

First and foremost, there is an interim US Coast Guard rule that requires all children under the age of 13 on a moving vessel to wear a US Coast Guard approved life jacket that fits properly unless below deck or in an enclosed cabin. However, this regulation does not supersede any state laws; rather, it only applies to states that have no life jacket laws.

That being said, the vast majority of states do have laws regarding child life jacket use, so you’ll want to check out your local laws before you head out on the water. While some states require life jackets only for children under the age of 8, others require them up to the age of 13 or when participating in certain activities (e.g., jet skiing).

The easiest way to learn about your state’s laws is to do a quick google search and confirm any legislation with your state’s Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Wildlife Department, or other similar regulatory bodies. But, when in doubt, get a life jacket for your kids.

Different types of Life Jackets for Children

Contrary to popular belief, children are not just little adults, especially when it comes to life jackets. Adult-sized life jackets will NOT work for a child, so it’s imperative that you get a child-sized life jacket for any kids on your boat.

That being said, there are five categories of US Coast Guard approved life jackets, yet only types II and III are suitable for use by children. Inflatable life jackets (type V) are not suitable for use by children, and many agencies recommend a type II life jacket for kids as they offer more buoyancy and can flip an unconscious person to get their head out of the water.

Additionally, all life jackets that are designed for use by infants and small children should have a padded head support to help keep the kid’s head out of the water in an emergency, a grab handle to make it easier to get them out of the water, and a crotch strap to keep the life jacket in the correct position when in use.

Finally, sizing a life jacket for a kid comes down to their weight, not their chest size, as it is with adults. For kids, the following sizes are available:

  • Infant: 8 to 30 lbs
  • Child: 30 to 50 lbs
  • Youth: 50 to 90 lbs

How to Ensure a Good Fit

Even the nicest life jacket on the market is useless if it doesn’t fit right. Perhaps the most important part about life jacket use (besides wearing one) is fitting it properly so that it can do its job in an emergency.

When it comes to kids, getting a good fit can be tricky, so there are a few things you ought to look out for:

  1. Ensure that you’re using the right size life jacket. All life jackets should have a label on the inside that indicates the size and weight of the intended wearer. It’s up to you to ensure that the child you’re putting in the life jacket is within the weight requirements listed on the life jacket. You’ll also want to ensure that the life jacket label says “US Coast Guard approved.” If it doesn’t, don’t use it.
  2. Inspect the life jacket for damage. While a life jacket doesn’t need to be pristine to function, you want to make sure any life jacket you’re using doesn’t show excessive signs of wear and tear. All the straps should be in good working condition and shouldn’t show evidence of excessive UV damage (fully faded colors, rips, etc.). Plus, all buckles should function properly, and the jacket shouldn’t have any large rips or tears.
  3. Put on the lifejacket and buckle/zip it up. All of the straps on a life jacket should be buckled and tightened. Plus, all if the life jacket has a zipper, it should be zipped up completely. Be sure to buckle the crotch strap, too!
  4. Check for fit. The last thing to do before you get underway is to ensure that your child’s life jacket fits properly. To do so, you’ll have them lift their arms above their head, and then you’ll gently lift them up by the shoulder straps of the life jacket. If the jacket fits properly, it shouldn’t ride up above their ears. If it does, you need to tighten the life jacket or get a smaller model. Alternatively, if you can’t buckle and zip all of the straps on a life jacket, it’s too small.

Enforcing the Rules: Getting Your Kids to Wear a Life Jacket, Every Time

While life jackets are really important for all boaters, many children hate wearing them, especially when they’re very small. Since a life jacket can be a literal lifesaver when you’re out on the water (especially for children who can’t swim), it’s critical that your child keep their life jacket on without much hassle.

Thankfully, if you’re struggling to get your child to wear their life jacket, there are a few things you can do to make things easier for everyone involved. Here are some tips:

  • Familiarize your child with the life jacket before you go out. If it’s your child’s first time out on the water with a life jacket, it can be helpful to get them comfortable with using the life jacket while still at home. You can try introducing the idea of the life jacket to your child and explaining why it’s important to wear. Plus, you can have them wear it in the bath or in the pool just to get them accustomed to the feel of the life jacket.
  • Bring your child with you to pick out a life jacket. If you need to buy a new child’s life jacket, why not bring your kid with you to find one that they like? Children’s life jackets come in an assortment of colors, so you can find one that you and your child both like.
  • Make a game of it. If your child really hates wearing their life jacket, you can make a game of keeping it on for as long as possible and have a reward at the end. It could be helpful to have other kids or adults play, too, to add to the fun.

Ultimately, wearing a life jacket is a non-negotiable for most children, so it’s really just about making them understand why they need to wear it. Plus, if you can get your child comfortable with their life jacket, they’re less likely to take it off in the middle of the day and put themselves at risk, which is a win-win for everyone!

John Allen

With more than a decade of experience cruising the lakes in my Crestliner Grand Cayman pontoon boat and my Boston Whaler, I now want to share everything I've learned with my community here at Boating Hub.

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