Wearing Life Jackets In Pools

Wearing Life Jackets In Pools

Life jacket, life preserver, life vest, personal flotation device (PFD)—no matter what you call it—the life jacket has a long and varied history

6 min read

They’re not just for open water and boats

By Tom Griffiths and Rachel Griffiths

Life jacket, life preserver, life vest, personal flotation device (PFD)—no matter what you call it—the life jacket has a long and varied history. According to Christopher Brooks, in Designed for Life: Life Jackets through the Ages, the earliest example of a life jacket or floatation device can be found on marble carvings from 870 B.C., depicting Assyrian soldiers swimming while holding onto inflated animal hides. Brooks states the real innovation period for life jackets came in the 1800s during the transition from wooden ships, which tend to float, to iron ships, which were known to sink. Since that time, hundreds of life jackets and floatation-device designs and models have been developed and have made their way to the market. The terminology used to describe these devices has been troubling at best. For years, PFD was used to describe United States Coast Guard-approved life jackets, but today, when the public hears the term “floatation device,” it is mistaken for just about anything that floats, including rubber duckies and inner tubes. In a recent study (2019), parents reported using a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket for their child (ages 1 to 5) infrequently, even in open water. 

While awareness of life jackets has focused on open water, there has been a push recently to transition their use to all bodies of water, including swimming pools and water parks. This movement has not been as easy.

Water Safety USA recommends inexperienced or non-swimmers, as well as children under 5 who aren't within arm's reach of an adult, wear a life jacket in a pool. However, many experts believe that, even with a child with a life jacket on, parents should still be within arm’s reach. In fact, the YMCA of the USA recommends that Ys require non-swimmers to always be within arm’s reach of a supervising adult and to wear a life jacket. The American Red Cross states small children and weak swimmers should wear life jackets anytime they are near water, including swimming pools and water parks. There are many facilities across the country with “note and float” programs. However, no product is perfect. Wearing a life jacket doesn’t eliminate the need for adult supervision or for learning how to swim, but it can be an important layer of protection when it comes to drowning prevention. At wave pools in water parks, the Model Aquatic Health Code now states that life jackets shall be available for free at such facilities.

A Confusion Over Descriptions

Most, if not all, aquatic professionals and water-safety agencies agree that only U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets be allowed in aquatic facilities. However, an abundance of non-U.S. Coast Guard-approved inflatable and non-inflatable swim aids and toys are available at big box stores, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Although these swim aids are typically accompanied by a disclaimer that it is “not a lifesaving device,” customers may falsely believe such devices will protect their children from drowning. In 2019, the Aquatic Safety Research Group wrote a piece titled “The Water Floatie Fallacy” that explains the difference between swim aids and safety devices, and implores parents not to buy floatation devices that are not Coast Guard-approved.

© Can Stock Photo / Paha_L

Another controversy has recently emerged with the development of Coast Guard-approved “puddle jumpers.” When used properly, these devices can significantly help prevent drowning by holding a child vertical in the water.  However, some people strongly believe young children and adults may develop a false sense of confidence with these devices, which might lead to a drowning because, in rare instances, these and other protective devices have been removed, and children have later entered a pool and drowned. As a result, some suggest puddle jumpers should be banned. As with any layer of protection, the device must be in place to work. It is also important to note that puddle jumpers are suited for toddlers starting at 30 pounds; thus, younger, high-risk infants and toddlers will not fit in these devices and will require an infant life jacket. Additionally, other life jackets fit this weight range from 30 to 50 pounds. So, puddle jumpers can be used as a layer of protection if they fit properly. 

No Substitute For Supervision

It must be emphasized that the aquatic industry does not promote a single layer of prevention when it comes to drowning prevention. Since the early 1980s, multiple layers of protection have been recommended to reduce drowning deaths. Further, experts and agencies believe there is no substitute for active, close, and competent adult supervision—even when a child wears a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. Some organizations like the YMCA (test, mark, protect) and the Note & Float program recommend identifying non-swimmers with a wristband, necklace, or lanyard in addition to a life jacket as an extra layer of protection. In this case, if a child removes the life jacket, the identifying mark can be observed by lifeguards and parents. 

A highly emphasized defense against drowning is learning how to swim, but that takes time. Many children have tragically drowned while learning to swim. Some experts suggest swim lessons for infants and toddlers can make students and parents overconfident around the water, but experts still encourage swim lessons early and often. 

There are now learn-to-swim programs that combine swimming skills with wearing a life jacket or floatation device. In this fashion, two layers of protection are provided simultaneously. Not only do these instructors believe children will learn to swim sooner, but children may be more likely to wear life jackets once they leave the program.  For instance, Linda Bolger’s Flotation Aided Swim Training Program (FAST) has been accepted by the state of New Jersey and written into its code. The state found her program is equal to or exceeds the American Red Cross and YMCA learn-to-swim programs. Likewise, Jim Reiser’s Swim Lessons University has been utilizing life jackets and floatation devices in his learn-to-swim classes for decades, with numerous teaching aids to enhance learning.

One thing is certain: whether a floatation device is Coast Guard-approved or not, more accurate and effective warnings are needed to prevent misleading consumers. For the most part, statements on these products do not adequately educate or warn consumers, but rather are unrealistically optimistic and often over-promise and under-deliver. Statements like “the easiest way to learn swimming” and “parents can relax at the pool” are counterproductive. Make no mistake: adult supervision is required even if a child is wearing a Coast Guard-approved device.

Come Together For A Purpose

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to prevent a child from drowning. Swim instructors, lifeguards, parents, friends, and family members, as well as layers of protection like four-sided fencing, self-closing and self-latching gates, pool alarms, locking doors and windows, and, of course, life jackets, have all significantly helped prevent child drownings. These “saves,” which probably happen every day, often go unnoticed and without fanfare. Like seat belts and helmets, life jackets must be worn for protection. 


Dr. Tom Griffiths is president and founder of Aquatic Safety Research Group, which provides aquatic safety solutions to aquatics professionals to prevent drowning and lower liability. He has published books, articles, and videos, and educated aquatics professionals for more than four decades. 

Dr. Rachel Griffiths is communication director of Aquatic Safety Research Group and president of Note and Float Life Jacket Fund, donating life jackets to swimming pools in need. She is dedicated to preventing drowning worldwide through research and education.