Flotation Devices for Kids: Safe at What Age?


“I want to introduce my baby to the water, and have the swimming pool be a safe and fun environment. But I know I’m going to need some kind of flotation device. There are just so many types and choices. What are the safest ones, and are there rules – use this type for this age child? I need help finding the right one.”

Every parent who wants to have their toddler start enjoying the water and the pool experience has to address the vital and very important question of flotation devices. So what are the types of flotation devices, and how does a parent choose the right one?

It’s not about age.

According to, it’s not about chest size or age range, like you might think. For kids, it’s about weight. They categorize Infant PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) by weight of the child:

  • Infant – for youngsters from 8 to 30 pounds.
  • Child – from weight ranges 30 to 50 pounds
  • Youth – children from 50 to 90 pounds.

These categories are independent of age –  think fit, not “how old” when choosing flotation device. A U. S. Coast Guard approved Type III Flotation aid is recommended for children. Those devices are comfortable for long term wear and allow freedom of movement. They are designed to aid the wearer in putting themselves in a face-up position. Research on flotation devices is worth the effort.

Proper fit.

For infants and small children, the device should have a padded head support, designed to keep the child’s head above water. It should be equipped with a grab handle, so the child can be retrieved from the water. It should also have a crotch strap to keep the flotation device from riding up around the child’s neck. Try the device on the child and let them get familiar with it before approaching the water. This will make the child less likely to panic when introduced to the water.

Child acceptance.

Babies and toddlers sometimes don’t like their flotation device, which makes it important to introduce the child to the device, and allow them to become comfortable with it ahead of time. Sometimes children will throw a tantrum when the flotation device is introduced, and refuse to wear it. The concept of the strange and bulky coat they are being asked to wear might cause a rebellion. Let the youngster wear the device and get comfortable in the house, and it can make the process go more smoothly at the pool. Try offering a reward to the child for wearing the PFD – possibly making a game of wearing the device. If the parent explains the purpose without creating a scare, the child will be much more receptive.

The fit test.

The U. S. Coast Guard ( emphasizes a snug fit when choosing a flotation device for a child. To check – pick the child up by the shoulders of the PFD, and if the device fits correctly, their chin and ears will not slip through. To make sure the device is a proper fit and will work for that child – test it in a swimming pool, with the infant or child who will be wearing it. Not all devices will work the same for different children. If one device doesn’t work well for that child – get another one. Better to do that than risk a swimming accident. The Coast Guard suggests that the PFD is not meant to replace the presence of an adult – the parent should always be within reach of a toddler, even when that child is wearing a flotation device.

Get the child comfortable.

The Coast Guard suggests that a child will likely panic if they fall into the water suddenly, thrashing their arms and legs violently. This would make it hard to float safely, even with a PFD on. The device will keep the child afloat, but may not keep a child who is thrashing and struggling face up. It is recommended that parents teach children how to put on a PFD, and help them get used to wearing one in the water.

With some thought and study to pick a proper flotation device, a child can be introduced to the swimming pool in a safe manner, while still allowing the experience to be positive. Watching a toddler embrace being in the water with smiles and giggles makes the effort to find the right flotation device well worth the effort!

[About the author: Becky Flanigan is a freelance writer for  She has 3 kids with her wonderful husband – two boys and a girl – and two lovely golden retrievers.  She spends hours at her family above ground swimming pool, watching the kids and dogs splash and play.  She is also a runner, and diligently training for her first half marathon. Image: peasap]

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