A lifejacket that suits and fits 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.

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A group of school children helped us test effectiveness and comfort of the various 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 lifejacket options

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.

kids-lifejackets-group-test-whistle-credit-paul-wyethWhen 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.

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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.

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Our testers were all confident, but treading water and dealing with a lifejacket can be difficult

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.

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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.

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Ease of fitting was one of the main factors that came into play

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 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.

Lifejacket 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.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Kids lifejackets tested
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