Bijoux Baby Vest

Bijoux Baby Vest

“PFDs: what you still need to know”
Pacific Yachting Magazine
June 2006

Regarding “Personal Flotation Devices; Everything You Need to Know” (March 2006), any boaters travelling with children up to age three would be well advised to listen and heed this warning. Last summer I observed two young families with their motor yachts tied to a yacht club dock in Silva Bay. While the parents enjoyed happy hour and lively conversation on the stern of one of the boats, two small children with minnow nets in their hands hung over the bulwarks hoping to catch some supper. One of the children was not much over one year old judging  by the wide stance of her legs and wobbly gait as she toddled down the dock after her older sister. The older child looked to be about four years old. Together they walked up and down the fingers of the docks hanging over the side whenever they saw something noteworthy in the water. I had to fight the urge to go over to the parents in their deck chairs and educate them to the perils of believing that if your children have PFDs on, they are safe.

Many years ago I was a lifeguard at one of the public pools in the Fraser Valley. One of my responsibilities was teaching a “WaterBabies” swimming class. This class was for mothers  with babies from six months to three years old. As part of all Red Cross Life Saving classes the use of PFDs is taught in every age level from infant to adult.

One of the lessons that many of my students’ parent’s found most remarkable was an explanation of how and when PFDs work and don’t work for young children. The article in PT is worthy of further comment about lifejackets’ design and how they affect small children.

The “wide-neck collar to support and keep a child’s head out of the water” only works if children are in the water on their back. However, if they were to fall into the water face first this very buoyancy at the back of the neck is what could drown them! The flotation is more powerful than a child’s ability to lift her face out of the water – if not properly trained, children are unable to flip themselves over and rest comfortably and safely on their backs. Small babies also lack the strength in their neck to keep their face out of the water for long periods of time.

Younger children typically are more top-heavy than older children, their heads being the biggest part of them. If their feet come out from under them, even in water that may only be at their waist, it’s very difficult to get their feet  back underneath themselves, get their face out of the water, and stand up again. The flotation in most PFDs works beautifully when the child is lying on her back, but fails miserably if the child is not able to wriggle around from the face-first position against the buoyancy of the vest.

As a lifeguard and instructor, I demonstrated this to a group of mothers and babies in the shallow end of the pool as part of the WaterBabies swimming lesson. One of the children in the class was 18 months old, and had been swimming since the age of six months. She could go underwater and swim happily from the mother to another adult close by, returning to the surface with a big grin on her face. Routinely, she happily slid down the kiddies slide, plunked in the water, paddle to the edge and climb out ready for another go. This kid was very comfortable in the water!

With her mother’s permission, I used her baby to demonstrate the effect of a PFD on a child that falls into the water face first. We suited her up to a PFD similar to the one pictured in the article last month. All the buckles were done up right, the through-the-legs strap fastened and the large neck collar support suited to her size and weight as the specification indicated.

This child had not had a PFD on before this demonstration so we placed her on her back to let her get used to the feel of it, all the while with her mother looking into her face and smiling her encouragement. The baby smiled back and kicked her feet and flapped her arms around playfully. I then asked the mother to turn her baby over onto her tummy and let her float freely in that position. As predicted, the child  had her face in the water and was not in a position to get her nose out of the water and breathe. She was able for short periods of time to lift her head, but the neck collar was working against her. This little girl did not struggle initially because she was comfortable with her face in the water. We soon flipped her over onto her back and all the mothers watching the demonstration were silent while clutching their cildren close to them. Without our assistance the child would most likely have drowned. We spent the rest of the lesson teaching the babies that were old enough and strong enough how to flip themselves over while wearing a PFD. As you can imagine, only the larger, older children were able to accomplish this with little assistance.

This information isn’t meant to frighten anyone. The intent is to educate people about a critical piece of information that could save their child’s life. Of course your child is much safer with a PFD on that not. What needs to be clearly understood is that although children may be wearing a PFD, they still need to be closely supervised – particularly if they are not comfortable in the water and are under three years old.

Further information about PFDs and young children is provided at any public swimming pool and/or through the Red Cross Life Saving Society.