Safe — and Unsafe — Flotation Devices for Kids
Water wings and inflatable tubes are fun, but they’re not made for safety
Your child is just learning to swim, or mastering the art, and you can't wait to have fun in the pool together this summer. But before you slide on that pair of water wings for insurance or blow up that trusty swim ring for your child to grab onto, dive into these facts.
These devices don't offer life-saving protection. Instead, they create an illusion of security for both parents and kids. As helpful as they may seem, don't rely on them to keep a non-swimmer or beginning swimmer afloat.
"They're fun to play with. Children like them," says UL consumer safety director John Drengenberg. "They give them a sense of buoyancy.” The trouble is that parents start to build up too much confidence in the “floatie," Drengenberg says.
At no time should you consider the flotation device something that will protect your child if you step away, even for a moment, Drengenberg notes. These devices are toys, not safety tools, which is why UL doesn't test them.
"Floaties" to watch out for
The list of personal flotation devices that should never be used for water safety include many familiar to parents across the country:
- Inflatable tubes
- Inflatable floats
- Swim rings
- Water wings
- Inflatable vests
- Blow-up rafts
Most come with these standard warnings: "This is not a lifesaving device. Never leave child unattended while in use." Or: "Never leave a child in water without adult supervision."
Another issue: These flotation devices tend to not be very durable and can fail without warning. "The child can easily snag it on the edge of the pool, it deflates and they start to go down," says Drengenberg.
Water wings can float off a child's arms, and even a belt float can unhook. And a child can easily slip out of a noodle or inflatable tube.
Here's another reason to avoid floaties: Swimming instructors say they're counter-productive to learning how to swim. They put the child in a vertical position in the water rather than the horizontal position used in swimming (or floating without a floatie). Also, water wings can keep a child from using the proper swimming motion. Some swim instructors say that by the time a child reaches age 6, such flotation devices can become a crutch.
Safe flotation devices
Safety experts say parents should use flotation devices that can be secured and aren't inflatable, such as a safety life vest that zips or straps on. They urge parents to not buy a larger size with the idea their child will grow into it — a vest must fit snugly to work properly.
Most of these devices are considered boating vests, which are certified life jackets. They are designed for most ages and sizes. Look for ones that carry a UL or Coast Guard certification: They have met safety standards and have a high level of reliability. "If it has a UL mark on it, then it has gone through some serious testing," Drengenberg says.
Still, Drengenberg says the same cautions apply. "Even with a real life jacket that has a UL mark on it, you still want to be there supervising. You don't want to be somewhere else."
A parent should never be beyond arm's reach of an infant or small child using a flotation device, even a life jacket. That includes the recently introduced neck floats — inflatables that go around a youngster's neck to keep their head above water.