A life jacket--also known as a personal flotation device (PFD)--is the premier means of keeping a child safe during boating, canoeing or any other kind of activity that takes place near, in or on the water. According to statistics from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 1,000 out of the 4,400 annual accidental drowning deaths in the U.S. involve children under the age of 15. That being said, the best life jackets for kids will do precious little to save their lives if adults do not ensure that they are actually being worn and fit properly. Sizing a life jacket for kids has been a bit of a mystery in the past, but a closer inspection shows that it is actually quite simple to do.
Go by Weight First
A snug-fitting life jacket is like a properly adjusted seat belt: a lifesaver. If your child is tall but light, it is tempting to buy a bigger life jacket simply because of the size, but what really matters is the weight limitation. For example, the majority of life vests for kids come in child size, which refers to the 30- to 50-pound weight range. A youth-size life jacket goes from 50 to 90 pounds. In a class by themselves, infant and toddler life jackets are ideal for kids weighing from zero to 30 pounds. It is a good idea to bring your child along when shopping for a life jacket. Different makes and models may ride higher, lower, have bigger or smaller arm holes, and also may be shorter or longer than others. Have the child try on the life jacket on dry land and you will not encounter problems on the water.
Look for Straps
Once you have narrowed down the right weight classification, look for straps. One of the greatest dangers is for a life jacket to be pushed over the child's head on impact with the water. As the jacket buoys to the top of the water, the child sinks below. Leg straps prevent this from happening. They are adjustable for the size of the child's legs and keep the PFD in place, even during a rather forceful impact. Another strap to look for is attached in a loop to the head portion of infant and toddler life jackets. Those manufactured for older kids frequently also have them on the back. These loops make it possible to fish the child out of the water by hand or hook, if needed.
Important Considerations Transcending Sizes and Leg Straps
The best life jackets for kids take into consideration a child's physical stature and needs. For example, infant life jackets featuring a head rest that ensures the child buoys to the surface head first are better for the child's safety than those models that omit them. In addition, reflective tape sewn to the material makes for easy visibility after dark or during storms. Waist and chest straps are a great extra that makes the life jackets more adjustable in keeping with your child's body type. As the child grows, these adjustable straps make it possible for you to keep the same PFD until the weight limit is outgrown, which is a very cost-effective means of keeping kids safe.
Warning about Even the Best Life Jackets for Kids
Wearing life vests greatly increases your child's odds of surviving a fall into the water. At the same time, they are not a guarantee of safety that allows you to even briefly turn your back on your child while on the water.