If your child is learning how to swim, you may be tempted to force him/her to wear a life jacket at all times for your peace of mind. Unfortunately, you might be doing more harm than good. Life jackets will not only impede your child’s ability to swim (hindering their ability to learn), but they are also not as safe as you might think.
The unfortunate reality is that life jackets can sometimes still slip off, especially if it is ill-fitting or your child is doing a lot of cannonballs into the water. If a life jacket causes your child to be more reckless and you take your eyes off your child for even a moment, there is a risk that one day the life jacket will fail, and you might not be paying attention at that exact moment to rescue your child.
The best solution to this problem is for your child to become a strong swimmer who isn’t reliant on a life jacket. And the only way to become a skilled swimmer is to practice swimming without a life jacket. Life jackets are bulky and get in the way of performing proper swim strokes. With a life jacket on, your child will never learn the correct way of doing them because they are always being impeded. Thus, learning to swim with a life jacket is a bad idea.
In this article, I want to dispel the myth that it’s a good idea to learn how to swim with a life jacket on. I will discuss what a life jacket is actually designed to do, why using it as a crutch to learn how to swim is ineffective, and what your child should actually do to learn how to instead.
The purpose of personal flotation devices (PFDs)
Life jackets or life vests are a type of personal flotation device. They differ from other types of personal flotation devices such as pool noodles, boards, and float belts in that life jackets are considered life-saving devices, whereas the other ones are used for recreational purposes and do not have the “life-saving” designation.
Unsurprisingly, the main function of a life jacket is therefore to save your life in scenarios where you could not otherwise stay afloat without the extra buoyancy. Life jackets are designed to keep somebody afloat even if they are completely unconscious, i.e. it provides enough buoyancy to hold up someone who is completely limp.
Since drowning can occur if the head is submerged underwater, life jackets are designed to keep your body in an upright position and buoyant enough so that your head can remain above the water’s surface. This is a sub-optimal position to be swimming in.
As you can see, life jackets are designed solely with the intention of saving your life, not to assist you with swimming. The upright position that life jackets force you to be in makes it impossible to swim effectively. Furthermore, the bulkiness of a life jacket will impede your arm movements and create a lot of drag.
Life jackets are intended to be worn for activities such as boating, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Basically, if you’re outdoors where the currents can be really strong and unpredictable, you need to be wearing a life jacket in case you are swept away or your boat capsizes.
In the situations mentioned above, it wouldn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you were. Humans are not strong enough, nor do we have enough stamina to swim out of a riptide, for example, which is why personal flotation devices are necessary to provide extra buoyancy so that we can conserve energy and stay afloat long enough to get rescued (or possibly wade back to shore ourselves).
As you can see, the situations in which a life jacket would be truly warranted are far more extreme than swimming at a pool where there are lifeguards, shallow pools, and other pool-goers who can help you if you’re struggling. They are not for learning how to swim.
How life jackets affect swimming
When you use life jackets improperly, such as by using them in different contexts other than the ones they are designed for, you can do more harm than good. Here’s how.
They can cause you to lower your guard
Life jackets are really good at keeping the wearer afloat. Your child can literally have no swimming experience and will be able to stay afloat with a life jacket. As a parent, you most likely find this reassuring and want your child to wear a life jacket whenever they are playing in the water.
I have personally seen many parents strap a life jacket on their child and then promptly take their eyes off their kid so that they can relax and do their own thing because they put so much faith in the life jacket’s ability to keep their child alive.
I have also seen kids do increasingly more reckless things with a life jacket on, such as wading to deeper or more turbulent waters (outdoors) because they thought that the life jacket would keep them completely safe.
Unfortunately, life jackets have been known to occasionally slip off, especially if they were too big for the wearer in the first place. The sudden force of diving into the water can also cause it to slip off. If your child has no swimming experience and this happens, the result can be lethal.
As a parent, you should never take your eyes off your child even if s/he is wearing a life jacket. As effective as it is, it’s not 100% effective. Do not get lulled into a false sense of security just because your child is wearing a life jacket.
They literally get in the way
People like to think of life jackets are to swimming what training wheels are to riding a bike. However, that’s not a really good comparison. Unlike a life jacket, training wheels are not invasive and still allow the rider to go through the same motions that someone without training wheels would go through. The same cannot be said about life jackets.
Let’s start with the obvious impediment. Life jackets are extremely bulky. They will hinder a child from even learning the most basic skills, such as how to tread water and how to perform a swim stroke. The size also causes a lot of drag in the water, and a child will feel like s/he is barely able to move.
Another concern is that swimming is done from a horizontal position, but the life jacket is forcing the wearer to be in an upright position (so that their head can be above the water at all times). If someone tries to get into a horizontal position, they will waste a lot of energy fighting against the life jacket which is trying to remain upright.
Other PFDs are not much better. Float belts, for instance, are more likely to tip a child forward or backward into a horizontal position. This allows them to swim, yes, but an inexperienced child might panic and try to go upright, they will be fighting against the float belt which is trying to keep them horizontal. Basically, we have the opposite problem of a life jacket.
There is no PFD that doesn’t get in the way and each one can make it harder to learn how to swim.
At the end of the day, learning how to swim is a vital skill if you plan on spending any time in the water. PFDs can be worn for safety, but you and your children should still know how to swim. That is only possible if you can practice swimming without relying on any PFDs, which only get in the way.
In my opinion, PFDs should only be used initially when learning how to swim. They can be useful to get you comfortable being in the water. Once the psychological benefits have been reaped, PFDs should be very quickly weaned off because they make it near impossible to swim.
The best way to learn how to swim is to take swim lessons. There are swim lessons for adults as well, and they are nothing to be embarrassed of. Swim instructors will start off in the shallow pool where the basics are taught. Eventually you will move to progressively deeper pools as your skills and confidence develop.
Life jackets are intended for activities where emergencies are life-threatening, such as canoeing, kayaking, boating, and so on. If you or your kids are just going to be swimming at your local pool, you probably don’t need to wear a life jacket. Just don’t do anything reckless and stay near a lifeguard, and there shouldn’t be any issues.