A toddler life jacket is a must-have if take your child boating. In the United States, whether or not your child wears a life-jacket is not a personal decision for you to make; toddlers—and children up to age 6—are required by law to wear lifejackets when boating. In some states, the requirement extends to 13 or 14 year olds, in others, even adults are required to wear them in some situations.
Water is a dangerous, powerful force, and if your toddler is around water he needs to be appropriately protected. You are there supervising him, but you can’t hold his hand all the time, and a toddler can fall overboard in as little time as it takes to bend and tie your shoelace.
And your toddler doesn’t just need a life jacket—he needs a life jacket. A jacket that is even a little too big will only overwhelm your child and won’t give him the protection he needs if he ends up in a life-threatening situation. Make sure your toddler’s life jacket fits to a T, and that he is within the manufacturer’s recommended weight.
There are three types of life jackets approved by the US Coast Guard for children. The kind you need will depend on the situations your child will be in.
• Type 1 – Offshore Life Jacket
• Type 2—Near Shore Buoyant Vest
• Type 3—Flotation Aid
Type 1 Offshore Life Jackets are big, bulky, and uncomfortable to wear for long, but they are also the safest choice—especially if you’ll be out in the ocean, in turbulent water, or if there’s a chance your child will have to fend for himself for more than a few moments. These life jackets are designed that an unconscious person will turn face upward—a very important feature in emergencies.
Type 2 Near Shore Buoyant Vests are a little less bulky and a little more comfortable, but most of them don’t offer the guarantee that an unconscious child will be turned face up. They might turn your child face up, and will certainly help keep him up above the water where he can be easily rescued. They are not ideal in rough seas, and are best used in quiet inland waters and situations where you know that, if your child falls in the water, you’ll be able to fish him out again quickly.
Type 3 Flotation Aids are lighter and comfortable to wear even for long periods of time, but they won’t turn your child face-up if he becomes unconscious, and they won’t offer enough support to keep your child afloat in rough, turbulent seas. These offer a minimum of protection and are fine if you’re boating in calm, inland water and you are keeping a sharp eye on your child. They should not be depended on for anything more than that.
You should be aware that inflatable life jackets are not approved for children under 16. Make sure your toddler's life jacket is inherently buoyant, made of sturdy foam, neoprene or another material that floats naturally.
When you buy a toddler life jacket have your child try it on for size. After he has put it on and it is properly fastened and buckled, pull up on the arm holes and have your toddler put his hands over his head. If the jacket rides up over your toddler’s chin, or if there’s any extra room above the armholes, it is too big for your toddler.
If it seems to fit, check the labels and make sure your child is in the manufacturer’s recommended size/weight bracket. Don’t buy ‘the next size up’ so your child can grow into it; that works for shoes, but your child’s life may be on the line here, and it is important he has a life jacket that fits him now.
Give your child some swim time in the water with his life jacket. This is important both so that you can test it out and make sure that life jacket keeps your child’s face over water, and so that he understands how it works and can learn to relax in the water. Talk to your toddler about his response to any boating emergencies.
Have your toddler wear his toddler life jacket whenever he’s out in a boat or playing at a harbor or deep-water pier, and as soon as it begins to be too small for him, buy a new one that fits him exactly.