Try on for Size: Tips for Best Fit, Safe Practices for Wearing Life Jackets
Be sure your child is wearing the appropriate life jacket size. Parents should remain vigilant even when their child is wearing a life jacket.
By Jean Yaeger
If your child or teen recently hit a growth spurt, last summer’s life jacket might not fit now.
So before your family heads to the lake, make sure everyone has a life jacket that fits properly, based on the weight of the person wearing it. Check the weight limits on the label – and try it on before getting in the water. One of the keys to drowning prevention depends on the appropriate size life jacket.
A small model designed for a 50-pound swimmer isn’t guaranteed to hold up someone who weighs more. A too-big life jacket, meanwhile, won’t keep a child’s head above water.
“Proper fit can’t be emphasized enough,” said Kyle Lewis, project manager and program coordinator for the Brazos River Authority at Lake Granbury, southwest of Fort Worth. “A jacket should fit the child snug. In my opinion, you should not get more than two or three fingers under the shoulder straps.”
Lewis travels to area schools to talk about water and boating safety. In his demonstrations, he puts an oversized life jacket on a student and holds onto the shoulder portion while the student steps off a chair. The life jacket pops up when the student goes down.
“If the life jacket fits, the child’s chin and ears will not slip through,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). “A device that ‘rides up’ around your face, or worse, falls off in rough water is dangerous. The floatation needs to stay snug around your body and lift you out of the water with your airway clear.”
Safe Kids North Texas, a community coalition based in Fort Worth and led by Cook Children’s, aims to raise awareness about water safety in lakes, swimming pools, bathtubs and any other place where children have access to water. Safe Kids partners with regional cities and agencies such as the Brazos River Authority to provide education and resources through the nationally recognized Lifeguard Your Child campaign.
It's an urgent message: Drownings are the leading cause of accidental death in children ages 1-4, and the second top cause of accidental death for children under age 14. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that for every child who dies by drowning, another eight receive emergency care for non-fatal drowning injuries, which can include brain damage.
“We have seen several boating accidents where the child was severely injured, but thankfully they had a life vest on so they stayed afloat until help could get to them,” said Sharon Evans, who collects data in her role as trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s.
Three of the 82 non-fatal drownings treated at Cook Children’s Medical Center in 2021 occurred in open water. Eight drownings seen at Cook Children’s were fatal last year. Evans said most of the 2021 drownings happened in swimming pools in backyards, apartments, hotels or community locations. As of early May, there have been 20 total drownings in 2022, three of them fatal.
Lewis and his crew plan to distribute about 250 free life jackets at giveaway events at Lake Granbury during the month of May. Safe Kids and the Brazos River Authority are providing life jackets, which come in four sizes: infant, 35-50 pounds, 50-90 pounds and adult small. Lake rangers will be on hand to help ensure the right fit.
If you’re purchasing a new life jacket, check to verify the label says “USCG approved.” Through testing, the Coast Guard designates what qualifies as a life-saving device. Not all styles on the market meet the USCG regulations.
Dana Walraven, manager for Community Health Outreach at Cook Children’s, recommends first, finding “USGC approved" on the label, and then letting your child or teen pick a color and style they’ll be excited to wear.
Previously used life jackets should be carefully inspected for wear and tear. Look for broken buckles and zippers, frayed straps, or rips in the flotation casing. Don’t use a damaged life jacket. The Coast Guard also advises:
- Life jackets are especially important where currents or murky conditions create hazards. They provide buoyancy for non-swimmers who wind up in the water unexpectedly, or for swimmers who become fatigued or hurt. Life jackets save lives.
- If a toe is in the lake, a life jacket goes on. That goes for confident swimmers and teens too. Statistics show an elevated drowning risk for teenagers due to peer pressure, alcohol use and other factors.
- Life jackets are not babysitters. An adult must always be present and watch when a child is in or near the water.
- Think of arm floaties, rafts and inflatable items as toys. “Arm floaties are not considered a lifesaving device, and the label will state that,” Walraven said. “They can easily become deflated and offer no head or trunk support to keep a child afloat.”
Children should continue to wear life jackets until they are away from the water’s edge or the dock. Walraven said children can easily get out of sight during distracted transition time, and adults might not hear a child falling off a dock or getting back into the water.
In 19 years of working in water safety, Lewis has unfortunately investigated several drownings, but none in the past two years at Lake Granbury. He credits improved public awareness by safety advocates, including the Lifeguard Your Child campaign.
Lewis points out that children under age 13 are required by law to wear USCG-approved life jackets while on a boat. One life jacket must be accessible for every boat passenger older than 12. He urges teenagers and adults to wear them because life jackets provide a layer of protection much like a seatbelt in a car.
Lewis said parents should remain vigilant even when their child is wearing a life jacket. The child might remove the life jacket, drift too far from shore, or be injured by an underwater object. A family gathering at the lake can turn into a tragedy in an instant, he said.
“Parents cannot take their eyes off their kids in the water. Drowning is sudden and it’s silent. It’s not like you see on TV where they’re splashing and yelling for help.”
Life Jacket Loaner Stations
Cook Children’s has worked collaboratively with partners, and currently stocks 31 loaner life jacket stations in North Texas, allowing lake visitors to borrow life jackets for the day. Five more loaner stations are planned to open at Lavon Lake in June. Each loaner station supplies five sizes of USCG-approved life jackets -- two in each size -- for use by children and adults.
Jillian Mitchell, drowning prevention specialist at Cook Children’s, said the program continues to grow thanks to partners like Linbeck Construction, which teamed up with Cook Children’s to build 17 of the loaner stations. Partnerships are essential to the success of the program, Mitchell said.
“Without their dedication and passion for water safety, we would not be able to grow as we have,” she said. “Cook Children’s loaner jackets are restocked every year. By making life jackets accessible and paired with education on the station, we believe it makes an impactful difference that saves lives in area lakes, ponds and rivers.”
Lifeguard Your Child shares these videos from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to illustrate the proper fit for life jackets:
Lifeguard your Child began in 2016 and continues its regional collaboration, led by Cook Children’s, to prevent drownings in North Texas. The campaign aligns consistent messages and educational goals across our region. Together with community partners across 11 counties, we work year-round to provide education, Water Watcher tags, swim lessons, life jackets and other prevention tools to families.
For more information, visit: Drowning Prevention | The Center for Children's Health (centerforchildrenshealth.org)