By: C. Douglas Nielsen

There’s something indescribable that tugs at America’s heart strings whenever we hear about the death of a child. This is especially true when the tragedy occurs during a family outing or vacation when everyday cares have been left behind in favor of quality time together. Sadly, these events seem to be most common when water-based activities are part of the recreation agenda.

Drowning claims the lives of many children every year. It is a silent killer that can claim the life of its victim in as little as five minutes and usually happens with an adult nearby. No one can watch a child every second. With each report of a boating related drowning comes the inevitable question, "Was the child wearing a life jacket?"

A life jacket or vest is a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD) that helps the wearer float and stay warm in water. There are several types of life jackets to choose from, but the following guidelines for wearing PFDs -- provided by the National Safe Boating Council -- can help parents protect their children:

When should a life vest be worn?

· Children between birth and five years -- on beaches, docks and in boats.

· Children between the ages of 6 - 11 -- on docks, boats, inner tubes and river banks.

· Teens and adults -- on boats or inner tubes.

When buying a child’s life vest, what should I look for?

· A label identifying the life jacket as being Coast Guard approved.

· A snug fit. Try the PFD on your child. Pick the child up by the shoulders of the PFD; the child’s chin and ears shouldn’t slip through a proper fitted vest.

· Head support for younger children. A well-designed PFD will support the child’s head when the child is in the water.

· A strap between the legs for younger children. This feature prevents the vest from slipping off in the water.

· Comfort and appearance. This is especially important for teens, who are less likely to wear a PFD.

How do you use a life vest?

· Every spring check for proper fit and wear and tear. The vest should be discarded if you find air leakage, mildew, rot or rust.

· If a child panics in the water and thrashes about, he may turn onto his face, though a PFD with a collar is designed to keep him face up when in the water. To help prevent panic, parents should have their child practice wearing the vest in the water.

· Never alter a PFD. It may lose its effectiveness.

· Parents should wear their life jacket to set the example for their children. By so doing, the parents will also be ready to help should there be an emergency.

· Never use toys like plastic rings or water wings in place of a PFD.


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