By far, this is the most frequently asked question of boating safety educators. And even though there have been printed materials distributed for years about selecting the proper life jacket for a child, much confusion still exists. Some of the boating magazines have published product comparisons based upon internal testing in hopes of enlightening the consumer, but since kids come in all sizes and packages, parents, guardians and grandparents all over are being challenged about what type, style, and size life jacket they should purchase.
As a life jacket designer for over twenty years, I've seen children's life jackets go through a myriad of aesthetic changes, but the engineering and performance criteria for obtaining Coast Guard approval has remained constant. Children's life jackets have been either Type III Flotation Aids or Type II Near Shore Buoyant Vests.
The biggest difference lies with the performance of the device. A Type III device is for a child who has experience in the water and prefers the comfort and mobility such a device can provide, while for children who are non-swimmers or who have a lack of familiarity with the water, the Coast Guard recommends a Type II Near Shore Buoyant Vest be used. Typically this type of device reflects a collar.
And when it comes to sizing, children's life jackets have been designed around three sizes, an Infant device (Under 30 lb.) and Child Small (30-50 lb.) and a Youth (50-90 lb.). And although a Youth Long device was offered a few years ago and an Infant/Child device (Under 50 lb.) is still available, children's life jackets have been sized solely around weight. Until now that is.
With many states enacting mandatory wear laws for youth age points, principally twelve years old and under, the United States Coast Guard recognized the need for increased comfort and wearability for children required to wear a life jacket either at all times or while the boat is underway. In both of these scenarios, children could be expected to wear a life jacket for long periods of time while sitting in a boat or engaged in such activities as water skiing or riding on a personal watercraft, therefore, the element of fit, comfort and increased mobility became a desired feature for children's life jackets. After nearly six years of research and development the Type V Swimwear Flotation Device classification of life jackets was formalized in September, 1997.
In essence this classification of life jacket permits swimming suit materials specifically Lycra/spandex to be used in the manufacture of life jackets. Although this material fades more readily than traditional life jacket fabrics and in some cases is less strong, its ability to conform to a child's body shape and maintain its intended fit with virtual no ride-up on the child while wearing the device is a desirable feature.
The Type V Swimwear Flotation Device was designed for children only. It was tested to the same standards as a Type III Flotation Aid except it was tested in its "end of service life" condition. Based on the natural aging characteristics of nylon/Lycra fabric, a fading point has been established to notify the user of when to replace this device.
WHEN ANY PORTION OF SUCH A DEVICE FADES TO THE COLOR OF THE INSIDE LABEL, THE CONSUMER MUST REPLACE IT AS IT NO LONGER MEETS USCG STRENGTH REQUIREMENTS.
A Type V Swimwear Flotation Device provides the same protection as a Type III Flotation Aid, however, it must be worn at all times to satisfy the requirements for carrying a Type III PFD. Its intended uses include general boating and high performance water sports including water skiing, wake boarding, knee boarding and personal watercraft. It is appropriate for calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.
Currently Future Products Corporation is the only manufacturer of a Type V Swimwear Flotation Device. They offer it under their trade name "Aqua Force" in a boys version with little legs and a girls version. It comes in four sizes Small, Medium, Large and X-large. The following chart specifies the weight range, apparel size and approximate age. Be sure to select the right size and not one the child will eventually "grow into"
2T, 3T, 4T
When selecting a Swimwear Flotation Device, choose the size that accommodates the child's weight, but have your child try the device on to assure a snug fit. Due to the Lycra fabric, this device hugs the body. If your child weighs slightly below the lowest poundage indicated by the size, select the next size down.
Looseness in the shoulders or within the body of the suit probably means the device is too big!!!
How well a life jacket fit and performed on a child in water was the focus of a Dateline NBC investigation in August, 1998. This segment depicted the instability of a Type III life jacket on a two-year-old Toddler wearing a disposable diaper. The child's parent was quite alarmed when the child went face down into the water after spinning around. He proclaimed this device jeopardized his child's safety and did not live up to his expectations for a life jacket.
Dr. Harvey Barnette, founder of the Infant Survival Swimming Institute and Mr. Wayne Williams, founder of the National Transportation Safety Association echoed similar criticisms about the performance inadequacy of children's Type III life jackets. Dr. Barnette was particularly critical of collars on Type II Near Shore Buoyant Vests claiming they promote neck injuries.
Many children are uncomfortable in the water and try to sit up in the water. This also encourages a side-to-side roll. A good stable floating position for children is a straight body with child's feet below the surface.
It is essential for parents or guardians to familiarize their child with how a life jacket works on his particular body. Children panic when they fall into the water suddenly. This causes them to move their arms and legs violently, making it hard to float safety in a life jacket. A life jacket will keep a child afloat, but may not keep a struggling child face-up.
While some children in the 30-50 pound weight range who can swim may like the extra freedom of movement that a Flotation Aide (Type III) provides, most children in this weight range, especially those who can't swim should wear a Type II Near Shore Buoyant Vest. This is a commonly held belief of the boating safety community including manufacturers, regulators, educators and law enforcement.
Currently 37 states and/or US territories require children wear a life jacket. The age point varies, however, 27 states specify the age as either Under 13, Twelve and Under or Under 12, 6 specify it as either 10 and Under, Under 10 or Under 8 with only four states specifying this age point as either Under 7, Under Six or Five and Under. For Tow-Behind activities the number of states requiring a life jacket be worn regardless of age is 38 while for personal watercraft operation the number totals 46.
For the record, most state mandatory PFD wearing laws require a flotation device be worn, but not all states require these devices to be Coast Guard approved. In some states the type of life saving means is generically described, others require Coast Guard approved devices while still others specify a particular type of Coast Guard Approved device.
As the boating safety community grapples with having adults voluntarily wear life jackets, it makes utmost sense to provide well fitting products to children. In the end these very children may grow into responsible adults who take boating safety responsibly, by wearing a well fitting life jacket when operating on our nation's waterways!