Personal floatation devices come in two main forms: buoyancy aids and life jackets. When worn correctly, these can help save a child's life.
Buoyancy aids are suitable for children in situations where help is close at hand. These flotation devices assume that the wearer can help themselves to some degree by swimming to safety and can keep them stay afloat until help arrives.
Life jackets have a collar designed to keep a person's face out of the water, making them ideal for small children and non-swimmers. If the wearer is unconscious, a life jacket will turn them to a safe position, requiring no subsequent action from the wearer to maintain their position.
When sailing with children, it's important to consider whether an automatic or manually inflatable life jacket is suitable for their age and activity on the water.
Buoyancy aids and life jackets have different levels of buoyancy indicating the their intended use on the water. There are four main buoyancy levels: 50, 100, 150 and 275.
In general terms, Level 50 is a buoyancy aid designed for when help is close at hand. Level 150 is a general-purpose life jacket more suited to offshore cruising and motor boating.
Always take the child with you when buying or hiring a life jacket, as this will ensure you choose the right weight category and fit. Consult a member of staff or an instructor for help if you need it.
Life jackets for children and babies are available in a wide range of sizes with specific weight ranges. Take care to select one with the correct weight range that's also a comfortable fit. You could come across two life jackets with the same weight range, but with different lengths. For small children this extra length may limit their mobility or ability to sit down!
Some life jackets will be more suitable to your child's height and weight than others. Where possible test the life jacket in a controlled environment to ensure it works effectively for them. If a life jacket is too big, there's a risk that its flotation properties will not work as effectively. In the worst case, a child could slip out of their life jacket.
Life jackets are available for babies. However, new-borns and smaller babies may not find a suitable fit, as the jackets will not be small enough to correctly support them. Babies and children's life jackets typically have more buoyancy around the neck and head. This is because a child's head makes up a larger proportion of their overall weight, making them more top heavy than adults.
You should also be aware that if a child is wearing nappies, this can also impact the flotation properties of their life jacket. With small children its recommended that they wear swim nappies, as these don't get as heavy as ordinary nappies when wet.
Guidelines suggest you should get a life jacket that fits your child now rather than one they will grow into. A good way to judge this is to fit and adjust the life jacket on the child and then lift it from the top. You shouldn't be able to lift it more than 2.5cm from the child's shoulders if the fit is correct.
As with any life jacket, you must ensure that crotch/thigh straps are fitted correctly. These will keep the life jacket securely in place by preventing it from riding up, helping to keep your child's head above water.