Life Jackets For Kids, US Coast Guard Approved, What Does This Mean?

When in a swimsuit our three-year old daughter is fearless! She splashes about, chases waves, and giggles in pure delight. She holds her nose as she “dunks” herself, then she jumps-up to “surprise” us… a new rendition of the peek-a-boo game. While I’m thrilled that she is spunky, confident and loves to explore, still… I wonder… is she safe? As a parent I pay attention to too many heartbreaking stories about Moms distracted for only a moment, sometimes sitting at only an arms-length of her child, yet the child drowns; a horrific accident; a reminder that drowning is often silent and un-dramatic.

I have a Puddle Jumper strapped around my daughter’s chest (an upgrade of the well-know water-wings or inflatable armbands that keep kids afloat in the water), but is it enough? The Puddle Jumper is a U.S. Coast Guard approved, Type III personal flotation device. As I continue to wonder about my daughter’s safety I become curious, what does “U.S. Coast Guard Approved” mean? It sounds impressive, like a prestigious endorsement. A product that owns this seal of approval must mean that the product is a good one and will, therefore, keep my daughter safe. This was my thinking when I bought the Puddle Jumper.

But now as the word “endorsement” echoed through my mind I was wondering what the phrase “U.S. Coast Guard Approved” really meant. My free-associations to the word “endorsement” conjured-up uncomfortable images: political endorsements, which I rarely trust; TV-ads featuring public figures, or worse, Hollywood actors endorsing products and services. Yikes! Have I been too naive? Have I blindly accepted an “endorsement” put forth by the U.S. Coast Guard? Have I put my daughter at risk?

What Does It Mean: U.S. Coast Guard Approved

Who are we to trust as “the expert” about kids and water safety? Who are we to go to as the authority on how accidents happen and how to prevent them? Who is rightly esteemed and who possesses enough credentials to speak on the grave nature of my concern… the breath-of-life of our little ones, our kids, my daughter? I admit, for me the United States Coast Guard was the only agency that came to mind, but not because I had personally investigated their integrity.

To ease the anxiety that my free-associations were conjuring-up, i.e. my growing distrust about an “endorsement” put forth by the U.S. Coast Guard and an “endorsement” widely used by retailers who sell, and therefore advertise, the Puddle Jumper, I needed to know exactly what the “endorsement” meant.

I was surprised when I discovered that the Coast Guard was willing to point to a “best” life jacket. Reading further, however, I found that the “best” personal flotation device was described in only a generic way and with conditions attached.

The “best” one, says the Coast Guard, is:

  • The one you’re willing to wear!
  • The one that saves your life every time it’s needed.
  • The one that matches your needs!

In the very next paragraph the Coast Guard voiced a vexing problem: “The perfect life preserver, lifejacket, or PFD (personal flotation device) has not yet been designed.” Not even the United States Coast Guard was a definitive one-stop, end-all and be-all authority.

Further, I learned that with a particular life jacket “endorsed” as “U.S. Coast Guard Approved” comes an attached “Think Safe” pamphlet. The pamphlet is an integral component of the endorsement. When I bought my daughter’s Puddle Jumper I had not even read the pamphlet.

The stamp-of-approval plus the “Think Safe” pamphlet equals the full meaning of: U.S. Coast Guard Approved. The one cannot be separated from the other.

The “Think Safe” pamphlet is a list of conditions that the Coast Guard attaches to the approval of a particular personal floatation device. Using the Stearns Puddle Jumper as an example: The Stearns Puddle Jumper is Coast Guard approved…

  • If the child wearing it is 30 to 60 lbs.
  • If the water is calm and/or if the body of water is an inland body.
  • OR If there is a good chance for fast rescue in or around the body of water.

Also, when it comes to children and the selection of a PFD the Coast Guard offers more advice:

  • You must teach your kids how to properly wear a PFD.
  • The PFD must fit snugly on a child.
  • The purchased PFD should be tested immediately after purchase: in a swimming pool, and on the child who will be wearing it.
  • PFDs are not babysitters; an adult should always be present.

You Must Teach Your Kids How To Properly Wear A PFD

The Coast Guard knows that children panic when they suddenly fall into water. The suddenness of the fall causes them to move their arms and legs violently which makes it hard to float safely in a PFD. While the PFD will keep the child afloat, it might not keep a struggling child face-up. I remembered reading an anecdotal story about the Stearns Puddle Jumper; a parent had a “just-learning swimmer” and she said, “She (the child) had to learn in the first few times (of using the Puddle Jumper) how to use it… that she would have to balance herself to keep her face out of the water.”

The PFD Must Fit Snugly On A Child

To check for a good fit the Coast Guard recommends picking the child up by the shoulders of the PFD. Since the Puddle Jumper does not have a shoulder-section I could test it by picking my daughter up by the chest-piece of the Puddle Jumper, then proceed and conduct the snug-fit test. In either case a child’s chin and ears should not slip through the flotation device.

The Purchased PFD Should Be Tested Immediately After Purchase

The Coast Guard cites the obvious. They note that children come in many sizes and shapes, and therefore, just because a PFD works for one infant or child does not mean it will work for another in the same manner. The Coast Guard therefore urges that PFDs be tested immediately after purchase: test in a swimming pool and with the child who will be wearing the PFD. They urge parents and guardians of children to check for three things:

  • Proper Weight Range
  • Comfortable fit
  • (And especially) A stable face-up position in water.

PFDs Are Not Babysitters

The U.S. Coast Guard reminds parents and guardians, more than once, to never leave a child unattended on a dock, on a boat or in the water, even if the child is in a PFD.

Conclusion: Lessons Learned

It was good and right to reconsider my mindless purchase of the Puddle Jumper. While the Puddle Jumper is a fine product, I had simply bought the “advertising hype”on the tags: “U.S. Coast Guard Approved.” I had uncritically trusted an “endorsement” put forth by an unknown authority, i.e. the U.S. Coast Guard. The blind trust I exercised in purchasing the Puddle Jumper left my daughter vulnerable because I was unaware of my role and responsibility about how to safely use the product that I had purchased.

U.S. Coast Guard Approved products are great, but, read the attached “Think Safe” pamphlets!

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