Picking the right kids lifejackets that are suitable and that fit your child is vital. Pip Hare put some of the latest kit to the test with the help of ten young volunteers
Inflatable kids lifejackets have come onto the market over the last few years. With their slimline and grown-up designs, they are a far cry from the rigid and bulky items I was forced into as a child, and they could bring an end to ‘lifejacket meltdowns’.
Though these lifejackets would theoretically fit children as young as three, there is still some concern among parents as to when it is safe to make the change from inherent buoyancy jackets.
I spoke to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) community safety team to analyse their recommendations concerning the fastening, fitting and operation of children’s lifejackets. I put their advice to the test with the help of ten enthusiastic young volunteers from the Bournemouth Swim School, comparing six of the market-leading inflatable kids lifejackets.
Our test team were aged between five and ten years, weighing 20-35kg. All were all competent swimmers. They dressed in jumpers and trousers, but without shoes or coats to avoid trapped air affecting the in-water performance. Each jacket was tested multiple times by different children.
The test was conducted at a swimming pool, with lifeguards present as well as members of the RNLI community safety team to oversee the fitting of the jackets. The children performed activities both poolside and in the water. The results of our tests are a combination of reporting from the children and observations by adults. All jackets are already made to ISO standards for lifejackets and our testing related to comfort, fit and ease of manual activation.
Different kids lifejackets
Inherent buoyancy jackets are all-foam jackets. They differ from buoyancy aids by providing a greater level of flotation and a neck support to keep the head out of the water. Traditionally, inherent buoyancy jackets have always been recommended for children as they provide instant buoyancy on entry to the water. Also, they should turn the wearer quickly onto their backs.
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Children’s inflatable lifejackets are only available with automatic firing heads. The size of the bladder is smaller than on an adult lifejacket but is not uniform across the kids lifejacket range. Though each of the jackets we tested was approved to the ISO Level 150 standard, meaning that when worn by a child in the correct weight bracket it will provide 150N (Newtons) of buoyancy, they each used slightly different sized gas bottles. This meant that the jackets provided slightly different levels of buoyancy.
This can be confusing and, as a result, you may be forgiven for thinking bigger is better when it comes to buoyancy. However, the jackets with the bigger bladders pressed against the faces of the smaller children in our test and panicked them a little, so make sure you choose a jacket in the correct weight range.
By far the most important factor to consider with kids lifejacket performance appeared to be a tight fit. The integral harness within a children’s inflatable lifejacket is made to fit a shorter body size, not just a smaller waist. Even if an adult’s lifejacket waist strap will tighten small enough to fit a child’s waist it is not appropriate to use on a child.
When can a child wear a lifejacket?
Kids lifejackets are sized according to weight, starting at 15kg – which could be as young as three. However, advice from the safety team at the RNLI is that “a child should only move into an inflatable lifejacket when they are old enough to activate the jacket manually should the automatic firing head fail”.
For our first test, we deactivated the automatic firing heads on a few of our kids lifejackets, then asked children of various ages to jump into the pool and manually activate the jackets.
Our testers were water confident, and jumped into a heated swimming pool where adults were waiting. Despite this, the task was still daunting for some. In general, all over the age of six coped well with the exercise.
However, in some cases, the cord was surprisingly hard to pull; the effort of treading water and inflating the jacket was a challenge and the first signs of panic were not far off.
The youngest to try this test was a plucky five-year-old and though she succeeded, it required a lot of encouragement and she looked quite scared while trying to pull the cord. I am sure this panic would be amplified in cold water and if alone.
Despite this girl’s high level of water confidence both her parents and swimming teacher considered it would be too much to expect her to activate the jacket manually. Water confidence and maturity will vary across children, and don’t underestimate the effects of panic and cold-water shock.
We expect auto-inflate jackets to do just that, but children and adults alike should know what to do in an emergency. For less mature children, non-swimmers and those less mobile, inherent buoyancy jackets are still the best solution.
Does lifejacket size matter?
One benefit of swapping to an inflatable kids lifejacket is the extended size range these jackets offer. Inherent buoyancy jackets tend to go up in 10kg steps, but the auto-inflate jackets cover a much larger range. Most jackets offered a 30kg weight range, while Secumar was the only brand with two bespoke sizes in children’s jackets.
When children are growing quickly it may be tempting to choose a jacket with the largest range. Bearing in mind the average height difference between a child of 15kg and 40kg could be over half a metre, we asked children at the bottom of the recommended weight range to test all of the jackets to see if there was an impact on fit and performance.
We discovered that for smaller, slimmer children, regardless of weight, it was crucial that waist and crotch straps were done up to create a tight fit.
Lifejackets that were too loose allowed children to slip down, letting the bladders enclose their faces, which caused discomfort. Loose waist belts made it difficult for children to move through the water with inflated jackets.
We found the best and most comfortable performance came from the closest fitting jackets. For the smallest children, the ‘bolero style’ of the Secumar mini was the best fit with the Spinlock Cento’s a close second.
Though the Kru XF Junior does start at 15kg, we found it somewhat swamped our five-year-old, and the Crewsaver Crewfit Junior also seemed bulky on the smallest children.
Comfort when out of the water is an essential element to getting your child to wear their jacket. Our poolside tests included sitting playing on a tablet as well as bending and moving around.
We wanted to gauge if jackets rubbed, impaired vision or restricted movement. Results from these tests varied; children showed no clear favourites and different body shapes suited different jackets.
It would seem prudent to involve your children in choosing their own jackets. Taking the time to allow them to try different types on over their sailing gear will ensure they choose a comfortable fit and may be a good strategic move in the ‘I don’t want to wear my lifejacket’ battle.
Can children fit their own jifejacket?
Having established best in-water performance is achieved if kids lifejackets are done up tightly, adults will need to consider how easy they want it to be for the young sailors to take them off. We rated our jackets on how easily the children could put them on and how securely they were fastened once this was done.
The Secumar jackets scored both top and the bottom in these tests. The Secumar Mini has a three-layer fastening system to stop it being undone by little hands and was almost impossible for our testers to do up alone.
The Secumar Junior was found easiest to fasten with a sole ‘clunk-click’ buckle. Most children struggled with the standard push-through metal buckles.
It is important to note that none was able to adjust waist belts to the correct size without adult help; so regardless of whether your child is able to put on their lifejacket alone, an adult should always check the fit.
Testing kids lifejackets with your children
We do not recommend recreating our manual firing test without competent people to change over and check lifejacket firing heads and act as rescue cover.
There was, however, much benefit in allowing the children to ‘have a go’ with their auto-inflate lifejackets in such an environment. It helped them to engage with what happens when the jacket goes off, understand they must only lie and swim on their backs with an inflated jacket, and to practise the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture), and find and blow their whistles.
Most swimming pools allow clean kids lifejackets to be used during their water activity sessions, but not in regular swim time. If you’re not fully trained in re-arming and packing your own jacket, it makes sense to perform this test just before an annual service.
Kids lifejackets safety tips
- Gas bottles can work loose inside jackets, especially when worn by active young people, so check regularly that they are still screwed in tightly.
- How snugly the jacket is worn really affects performance, so don’t forget to check the straps, including the crotch straps, are tight throughout the day.
- Every auto-inflate jacket we tested used a different size of gas bottle, but not all sizes are easily available. Make sure you buy a couple of spares at the same time as purchasing your new kids lifejacket.
- Fit is crucial. Make sure your children try lifejackets on while wearing their sailing clothes before making your choice.
- In case of accidental inflation, always carry a spare lifejacket in the correct size for your child. Inherent buoyancy jackets are available for as little as £25 and though they may not be suitable for long-term wear, they would make good back-ups.
- All jackets tested included an integrated safety harness, so make sure clipping-on while sailing becomes part of your young crew’s routine.
Best kids lifejackets
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The Cento has a ‘grown-up’ style similar to Spinlock’s Deckvest LITE. It is available in pink and blue and has a high-quality finish. The jacket was easy for children to slip over their heads but they struggled with the off-centre push-through buckle.
The jacket received consistent high scores for comfort in and out of the water and was the lightest of our sample at just 700g. It is one of the more expensive jackets, at £117, but it covers a wide weight range of 20-50kg and comes with a five-year warranty, if registered.
Overall: Great for regular sailors and a clear favourite with our older girls.
Sizes available: 20-50kg
YW rating: 5/5 – Editor’s choice
The XF junior is a no-nonsense jacket covering a weight range from 15-40kg. Though the waist strap and crotch strap could be tightened to fit a five-year-old, the bladder still rode up around their ears in the pool. This being so, we wouldn’t recommend this jacket for very small children. However, the bigger children among our testers reported that it was comfortable.
Overall: This is the entry level for auto-inflation at £44.95. It performed well in wet tests, but it did rub on a few of the children’s necks. In the hands of an active child the Velcro bladder fastening may not last as well as the zipper alternative. That said, this could be a good first step to a ‘grown-up’ lifejacket.
Sizes available: 15-40kg
YW rating: 3.5/5
The Waveguard Junior scored highly with our children on fit and comfort. Good features included a window to check the firing head, a soft insert around the neck and extra wide Velcro securing the bladder edges.
Seago uses a back plate inside the bladder with a strong rubber band to stop the gas bottles from moving and unscrewing during dry wear. This does make one side of the jacket more rigid than the other, but it didn’t seem to bother our testers.
Overall: With a recommended retail price of £59.99, I felt the Waveguard Junior represented the best value of all the jackets we reviewed.
Sizes available: 20-50kg
YW rating: 5/5 – best value
A well-fitting and comfortable jacket with a shaped bladder fastened by zip, padded waist straps and reinforced firing head window. Crewsaver has placed the waist strap adjustment on the side of the jacket, which made it a lot easier for adults to adjust. The jacket achieved good scores on comfort both in and out of the water.
Overall: A good mid-range jacket, which the adults found easiest to adjust while being worn by the child. This makes it good for those who sail regularly through the seasons as the jacket goes on and off along with clothing layers, or for those who have children who make frequent trips below decks.
Sizes available: 20-50kg
YW rating: 4/5
The Secumar Mini covers the 15-30kg weight range, while the Junior does 20-50kg. These jackets have a huge level of detail, including fleece inserts, padding on straps and extra security fastenings on the Mini. Secumar also offers a dual-layering system to protect the bladder from chafe damage, which may be incurred through rough usage.
Both jackets are shorter in the body than others tested making bending and sitting more comfortable. At £199 these are top quality but expensive jackets. They are well designed and comfortable, but the extra detailing does make them heavy, which may become more noticeable over time.
Mini: The Mini was a great fit for our five- and six-year-olds – they loved it but parents will need to gauge if children of this age have the maturity to wear an inflatable lifejacket. The pirate design motif may age-limit the jacket, making it less popular with older children despite still being a good fit.
Sizes available: 15-30kg
YW rating: 3.5/5
Junior: This jacket scored well on comfort and was the only jacket that children could easily fasten unaided, so it would be great for independent children.
Sizes available: 20-50kg
YW rating: 4.5/5
Due to the range of shapes and weights of children, choosing an inflatable kids lifejacket is not a case of one size fits all. A snug-fitting lifejacket was vital to performance in the water.
Let your child tell you what feels good while you assess how easy it is to do up and how individual features will stand up to your child’s level of activity on a boat.
Swapping to an inflatable kids lifejacket could certainly give your child a greater level of comfort and mobility while moving around a yacht as well as the ability to clip on.
Don’t forget that when making this change you will take on the responsibility of checking and maintaining the lifejacket, as well as ensuring your child knows how it works. Perhaps this could lead to a better understanding of your own lifejacket as well.
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