Puddle jumpers, a type of toddler swim vest, are one-piece flotation devices that have arm floaties attached to a chest band that clicks around their back. Many parents say they make their child feel more confident in the water, and give them peace of mind. But experts say to proceed with caution if your child wears one. Counterintuitively, they could put your child at risk for drowning.
Knowing how to use puddle jumpers them responsibly means first understanding the dangers associated with them.
Why puddle jumpers can be dangerous
The puddle jumper positions your child upright in the water, which isn’t the correct position for swimming—it’s a drowning position, not the life-saving, horizontal position kids use when floating on their backs and swimming. If kids go in the water without wearing one, they may start to swim vertically by treading water, which tires kids out very quickly, hence the drowning risk, the Judah Brown Project says.
Most drowning incidents in young children don’t happen when the child is in water during supervised swim time. Without proper barriers in place, a child can access the water outside of those times.
“They [puddle jumpers] should never replace adult supervision, which should be close, constant and capable,” Dr. Sarah Denny, an associate clinical professor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, tells Motherly.
The purpose of a personal flotation device is not to help a child learn to swim, but to prevent drowning, Denny adds. Because puddle jumpers are not traditional life jackets, they may not be able to stop drowning—and may actually cause it, by providing a false sense of security.
Don’t let the device replace swim lessons, Denny warns. Kids who rely on puddle jumpers in the water may not know how to swim on their own. Also, they could develop a fear of the water if they depend on the puddle jumper for all water encounters.
Misinformation in marketing?
The language around puddle jumpers can be confusing. You may see that a device is U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)-approved, but that doesn’t mean it will keep your child safe in the water.
“They are only USCG-approved to wear on docks and boats when the child is not supposed to be getting in the water,” she tells Motherly.
Many puddle jumpers are approved by the USCG as Type III personal flotation devices, but that doesn’t mean they are designed for swimming in the pool. They cannot turn a child's face up in the event of an emergency like a Type I device.
The Coast Guard doesn’t evaluate or approve floatation devices for learning to swim, according to a letter from the USCG that Hughes shared with Motherly. The letter says USCG devices meet standards for construction, performance and manufacturing. They say the “device is approved only when worn” but do not specify it’s approved for being worn in the water.
Most safety warnings and use specifications are not on the product packaging, Hughes says. “Unfortunately, the packet is like 40 pages long so nobody is reading it,” she adds.
Hughes isn’t the only one who has an issue with how puddle jumpers are promoted.
Flotation devices are being marketed and sold in a way that increases the risk of children drowning, according to Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), and Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, chief medical advisor of the NDPA. They created a petition for the End the Misinformation campaign, which aims to remove some of the unclear messaging used to promote puddle jumpers.
“Product packaging language makes such claims as ‘learn to swim easily,’ ‘parents can finally enjoy peace of mind,’ and ‘increase their confidence in water,’” their petition says. “Many parents find themselves using the products under false assumptions and developing a false sense of confidence and security,” it continues.
They say kids should only use flotation devices that have been approved by the USCG, and many products on the market lack that certification.
“Routine use of flotation devices in swimming pools and other swimming sites may actually increase risk of drowning, providing the child and parents a false sense of security in the water,” they write.
Equipping children to stay safe
Hughes wants parents to have accurate information when choosing whether or not their child should wear a puddle jumper. She hopes to improve the “misleading marketing” around the devices.
“I am not necessarily advocating that nobody ever wear a puddle jumper. But it is not fair for parents to make the decision based on misleading, unproven claims from the marketing of puddle jumpers,” Hughes says.
She advocates for teaching infants how to self-rescue in the water, which shows the child how to roll over so they can breathe. Additionally, layers of protection around water can protect kids, such as door and pool alarms, supervision and pool fencing.
Hughes is working on research to better understand childhood drowning and draw up evidence-based strategies for prevention. She also created a water guardian tag, in hopes to designate an adult in charge to supervise children in or near water.
The Judah Brown Project also notes that even life vests shouldn’t be used in pools. “They should only be used in open water like oceans, lakes and rivers [where it is very important that they are used]. Life vests were made for open water. They were never meant to be used in pools,” the organization states. “Pools are where kids learn what their own bodies can do in the water. They need to do that without a flotation device on, to develop respect for the water.”
How to safely use a puddle jumper
If you plan to let your child wear a puddle jumper, choose a USCG-approved device and follow all instructions. Know that just because your child has it on doesn’t mean they will be safe in the water. Staying in the water alongside them ensures you can quickly respond if the vest tips them head-first into the water.
Also, don’t rely on puddle jumpers to teach your child how to swim as a swim-aid; instead sign up for swimming lessons where kids can learn proper swim techniques without relying on a flotation device.
And the final key? Don’t put your child back into a puddle jumper or similar swim aid after they have learned to swim, because the devices will unteach them all of the skills they have learned in lessons, stresses the NDPA.