When Should My Child Use Floaties? – Steve Wallen Swim School in El Dorado Hills and Roseville
Just as with many things in life, there is a time and a place for floaties. Every day, you make critical decisions regarding your child’s safety, learning, and happiness, so thinking about the proper use of floaties is natural. Swim floaties have been around for decades and are now more comfortable and appealing to little ones than ever before. Many sport their favorite book or program characters, and if we are sincere, many children feel pretty invincible when wearing their floaties.
Before we dive into when and where floaties are best worn, let’s take some time to differentiate between life jackets, PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices), and toys. A life jacket is designed to prevent accidental drowning by keeping your head above the water. Perhaps most importantly, the proper life jacket will turn a face-down, immersed, unconscious person into a face-up position. Unfortunately, not all life jackets or PFDs offer this life-saving feature, so read the labels and review the design carefully.
The United States Coast Guard regulates life jackets. The laws around the use of life jackets vary by state, so be sure to review the rules. The design of life jackets varies according to the water sport, and some, like inflatable life jackets, require practice. Allow the entire family to practice wearing their life jackets in the water and simulate a sudden immersion while wearing them so that everyone is comfortable if/when an emergency arises.
Some life jackets have other special safety features such as whistles, collars, and reflective materials. Be sure to choose the proper life jacket according to size and sport. A life jacket must be the correct size to support the person in the water. This is not a piece of equipment that your child ‘can grow into,’ and most importantly, they only work when worn at all times!
A PFD, or personal flotation device, is a blanket term for any product (approved by the US Coast Guard) that will provide flotation, including life jackets, life vests, and sport-specific jackets and vests. Just as with life jackets, PFDs come in a wide range of styles and sizes, so be sure to choose the appropriate size and style and confirm that the US Coast Guard approves it. In addition, if you are purchasing second-hand, inspect to ensure that all zippers and buckles are operational, that the fabric is sound, and that the inner material is dry and sealed.
Floaties are toys, and as such, they offer zero protection against drowning. Floaties come in many colors, shapes, and styles. These toys are designed to appeal to your child’s interest and provide them, at least in their minds, with independence in the water. However, no matter what type of inflatable device your child is wearing or playing within the water, they still require the arm’s length away supervision of an attentive adult at all times. Unfortunately, floaties and other water toys may instill a false sense of security in your child, leading them to mistakenly believe they have the skills necessary to avoid drowning.
The use of floaties should be limited to a minimum. Instead, and ideally, parents and other caregivers should be active water participants with children. Fun water play is a time to educate your children on the dangers of water and stay safe. All children should learn safe water entries and always wait for an adult to enter the water first. Non-swimming children may forget they are not wearing a floaty, or they may take it off and then enter the water with tragic results.
So, when is it ok to let your child wear their floaties? Floaties offer a layer of fun and excitement that is irresistible to your child. In addition, you may feel more at ease having your child wear a floaty as they are supported in the water, and your hands are free. However, remember that floaties are not ‘learn to swim’ devices, nor are they safety devices. For some children, they can become a crutch, and some will refuse to enter the water without their beloved floaties. Floaties also counteract many of the critical swimming skills your child is learning in their swimming lessons. The use of floaties encourages bad swimming forms, which may result in habits that are hard to break.
For example, floaties do not allow for a proper swim position; when swimming, the body should be in a horizontal position rather than the vertical body position forced by floaties. An upright position in the water does not allow for maintaining the body at the water’s surface; a fast sink to the bottom is accomplished by moving into a vertical position. So, when your child is not wearing their floaties, they may move into this negative position. Further, floaties may restrict arm and upper body movement; this will discourage your child from propelling themselves through the water using arm circles and pulls. Breath control and submersion skills are also hampered when wearing floaties.
Your goal and responsibility as a parent are to keep your child safe in and around the water. This is best accomplished by an early introduction to swimming and water safety lessons, followed by regular and consistent classes as they grow into adulthood. Any time you engage in boating or water sports, ensure that everyone in your family has an appropriate life jacket or PFD, as the situation demands. Keep water toys and floaties for special occasions and closely supervised play, and never use them as learn-to-swim devices or as substitute supervision when near or in the water.