The DANGER of Flotation Devices

“Caution: This is not a lifesaving device. Do not leave child unattended while in use. Use only under competent adult supervision. Not a life preserver.”
“WARNING! Only to be used in water in which the child is within its depth and under adult supervision.”

(This is the standard warning on floaties.)

We are getting to the time of year when we will be seeing more and more articles about senseless drowning. What does this have to do with flotation devices? More and more children are wearing these devices in their swimming suits, on their arms and around their waist. Parents feel more secure when their little one’s head is held above water when they are not holding them.
There are times when flotation devices are a must, like ANY TIME the child is on a boat, or around the water (lake, river, beach, or pool – when you are not holding them). Always use a Coast Guard approved life jacket. The ONLY time a child should not use these is when they are swimming. What is the harm? It is threefold.

1. They give a false sense of security to the child. When a child swims with a flotation device, they do not have to work, or even get proper body position, to get to the surface. Usually, a favorite pastime at the pool for children is to repeatedly jump in. It’s so much fun. When a child does this over and over with a flotation device, they learn to just “hang” in the water and wait to be popped up to the surface. Many times, accidents happen when the device is taken off (to get a snack, or go to the bathroom) and the child gets back in the water without being noticed. Since the child doesn’t have the maturity to understand that they won’t “pop up” without their flotation device, they will continue with the same behavior (jumping in and just “hanging”, waiting to be popped to the surface).
2. They give parents a false sense of security. Parents feel that they are being safe by putting these devices on their children. Many times, you can see youngsters walking to the pool with mom or dad, wearing their arm floaties. These children will be allowed to play in the pool, even where they can’t stand up, while mom or dad lies at the side, reading a book, or something. Arm floaties are dangerous in that they don’t always work. They can have a leak that is hard to detect, they can slip off easily (especially after sunscreen is put on), and very young children bite them and put holes in them. Other devices include the inflatable rings that go around the waist. They are really dangerous, in that many times, children end up upside down and they can’t right themselves. This is very common. The only devices that should be allowed to keep children at the surface are coast guard approved life jackets. Parents – DON’T TRUST ANYTHING ELSE!
3. They put the body in the wrong position for swimming. I have seen children that already know how to swim, that wore floaties over the weekend and came back to me with a non-productive stroke. In other words, they went from being balanced in the water in a horizontal position, to being unbalanced vertically. This can even scare a youngster into not wanting to learn to swim. Most devices keep the child in an upright position, so they never learn that they have to lie down on the water to stay at the top. Children that paddle around the pool in arm floaties are learning to swim in an upright manner, usually bicycling their legs for a kick, and rarely, if at all, put their face in the water. Try this
yourself without flotation and see how long you last.

I have always told parents to stay away from floaties and rings, and just get in the water with your child. Make sure that you always have them within an arms’ distance, and ALWAYS have your eyes on them. Train your children to ask permission to leave the steps (or whatever their boundaries are), and wait for your response. Teach them to sit at the edge of the pool and wait for you to call them into the water. When you have to get out for a break and your child wishes to stay in (with another adult in the water, of course), then put the life-jacket on them. BUT, also have them follow the same guidelines, and stay within the same boundaries. They do not understand that the life jacket is holding them up and making it OK for them to paddle around the pool, so don’t give them permission to do that with a life jacket on. (Plus, it puts their body in a more vertical position, so effective strokes are more difficult.)

Young children need to learn respect for water early. Parents and instructors must try to instill a sense of respect at the same time as encouraging a love for this environment. Train young children early to follow your rules around the water and always enforce them, never slack off. It could mean the difference between life and death.

By Barbara Harold. For more information about water safety and learning to swim, email Barbara at