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10-Step Guide to Child Life Vests

A kid in a life jacket paddling on a surfboard

The State of New Jersey requires all children under 12 years of age to wear a USCG-approved Type I, II or III Personal Flotation Device (PFD) while onboard any vessel less than 65 feet in length. This requirement includes non-motorized crafts such as canoes, kayaks, and rowboats. Children in fully enclosed cabins are not required to wear a vest. 

This law applies to boaters on Lake Hopatcong boaters because most boats on our lake are subject to this law. Additionally, most watersports on Lake Hopatcong legally require the use of PFDs regardless of the participant’s age. PFDs save lives when used consistently and properly in accordance with manufacturing instructions and USCG recommendations.

Here are some tips and pointers to consider when accessing the condition and suitability of the flotation equipment you have for your child/youth passengers. This helpful guide should not be used in substitution of your independent understanding of state and local laws and regulations. 


1. ENSURE PFD EQUIPMENT IS USCG-APPROVED

There are many floatation products, toys, and garments on the market – many are not USCG-approved. All USCG-approved equipment is clearly marked as such. If you do not see a USCG-approved seal or marking on your device - it should not be considered a USCG-approved PFD and NEVER used in place as a USCG-approved PFD.  Check for the USCG-approved stamp on PFDs.

A general rule of thumb to remember: if the item is inflatable with an air valve - it should never be considered safety equipment. This includes rafts, mats, floats, towables, arm floats, tubes, and rings among other items. 

2. ENSURE CHILD PFDs ARE TYPE I, II, III

There are many materials and styles of PFDs in the market.  Vests are constructed usually of neoprene and foam. Canister inflatable and hybrid inflatables are expanding from fishing applications to the sporting field. As far as styles, universal use vests are most common, though there are vests and belts designed for specialized activities such as kayaking or water skiing. Regardless of construction or design – all USCG-approved PFDs are classified into “types”.

There are Five types of PDFs - listed as Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, and V. Each type addresses specific environmental/safety conditions and must-have design features to match such conditions. All USCG-approved PFDs have the type clearly marked on the item. If you want more information understanding what each type of PFD means – go to the USCG website. 

Children’s vests by law must meet standards for I, II, III types and be marked as such. PFDs with I, II, and III ratings also are required for most watersports happening on Lake Hopatcong.

3. ADHERE TO THE SIZING GUIDELINES

One size does NOT fit all. USCG-approved vests must be stamped with weight and chest size guidelines. If the end-user of the vest does not match the weight and size requirements of the vest – the vest may cause harm to the child. Check straps and zippers so they ensure a snug fit for your child’s body type.

The USCG website has a simple fit test that you can do to ensure the vest is the right size for your child passenger.

4. UNDERSTANDING FEATURES and USING THEM

All USCG-approved infant PFDs, child PFDs, and some youth vests have features specific to children. In general, these are the features to consider when choosing a vest:

  • Color: Vests come in a variety of colors and prints. Brightly colored vests – orange, yellow, neon green - help boaters easily see a child floating in the water. Reflective patches on vests are good to consider for poor visibility conditions like stormy weather and nighttime boating.
  • Head Float or Pillow Float: Often found in infant and child-sized vests - this feature is in place to keep a child’s head above water and facing upwards even if that child is unconscious or panicking. The head/pillow float should have an easily identifiable loop sewn to it for an easy and safe way to pull a child out of the water. 
  • Leg/Crotch Strap: This strap is designed to fits snugly (but comfortably) between the child’s legs. When used properly and close to the body, this strap prevents the child from sinking out from the vest – which can result in restricting arm movement, or worse, submerging the mouth and nose. If the vest has this strap as a feature and it is not used – the entire function of the vest is compromised regardless of the swimming capabilities of the child. Vests designed for older children and adults usually do not have this leg-strap feature. 
  • Chest Straps/Zippers: Chest straps ensure the PFD fits snugly on the torso. Look for straps that can be adjusted and tightened to fit your child easily and stay in place. If a vest has additional front closure zippers – they should also be used in addition to the chest straps.

5. CONDUCT PERIODIC INSPECTIONS

All equipment can become damaged over the course of time regardless of use. It is good practice to inspect all PFDs at least once or twice a season to ensure the equipment is not compromised in any way. Better yet, check PFDs every time a child wears one. We recommend discarding equipment with faults. Some common faults to look for are:

  • Snaps and clips – make sure all snaps and clips are complete, snug, and fit together correctly. If any clip is not usable – the entire function of the PFD is compromised. 
  • Fabric wear, thin spots, and tears – fabrics and threading can become thin or weak. PFDs with worn fabrics, frayed seams, and loosened stitchwork may fail and compromise the efficacy of the PFD.
  • Straps – ensure all straps are complete, in good condition, and remain engaged when tightened. As with clips and snaps – one malfunctioning or unused strap will likely result in compromising the entire function of the vest – and may injure the user.

6. TEST BEFORE YOU GO

As with all safety equipment – it is important to be familiar with how the equipment operates. If possible – try the vest with your child passenger in a calm safe and managed condition such as a pool or wading area. These practice runs can help everyone become familiar with the feel, functionality, and specific features of the PFD.

7. ZERO TOLERANCE - IT IS THE LAW

Properly wearing a vest can be tolerated by even the most demanding children. Some of us at Main Lake Market are parents to some finicky kids ourselves! Vest wearing can enhance a child’s ability and willingness to swim or engage in water sports.

If children know that adults will not allow them to boat without a vest, not matter what, they come to accept their part in staying safe. Be consistent. Always have a zero-tolerance attitude. Most children take pride in being law-abiding citizens. You may be surprised how wearing a vest becomes second nature to your child passenger with consistent use and messaging.

8. STAY EDUCATED AND INFORMED

We hope these tips are helpful to you. However, they are not to be used in place of your independent understanding of all USCG guidelines and recommendations and the manufacturer guides for your PFDs. Check frequently with Marine Police and USCG for updated state laws and local requirements for your boating destination.

9. A WORD ON INFANTS

The USCG does not recommend infants ride in recreational watercraft. There are infant vests on the market for the littlest of boaters. Of all child vests, these are the ones that we suggest you test in a managed and safe environment prior to boarding a boat. The fit of these products is highly specific to your infant’s size, age, and shape. 

If an infant is on board, consider keeping trips short as body temperature can be affected by prolonged use of a vest on an infant. We strongly suggest that you speak to the infant’s health care professional or contact local authorities and/or the USCG for critical information that may assist you in preparing for an infant on board.

10. NEED A USCG-APPROVED TYPE I, II, III VEST? WE CAN HELP.

If you are in the market for a USCG-approved PFD for your child passenger, Main Lake Market carries a stock of universal vests in infant/child and youth sizes. We do not carry specialized designs such as hybrids, or inflatable vests for children. 

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