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Using PFD’s: Helpful or Hurtful When Learning How To Swim?

Lifejacket, PFD

Using PFD’s: Helpful or Hurtful When Learning How To Swim?

by Jenelle Lockard

Many parents rely on personal flotation devices, or PFD’s, to keep their children safe but do PFD’s really help in keeping children safe or can they do more harm than good?  The answer lies in the way they are used. But when it comes to learning how to swim, PFD’s may actually interfere somewhat with the child’s ability to properly learn how to swim. 

Personal flotation devices (PFD’s) such as a life vests or life jackets are made to keep people safe in emergencies such as when participating in boating, kayaking, canoeing, fishing,
and more.  PFD’s such as float belts and water wings are made to give added protection when playing or recreating in the water.  In my experience too often I have seen parents using PFD’s for their children as the only method to prevent drowning.  So how PFD’s cna be hurtful?  They cannot substitute for parental guidance, supervision, and the child’s ability to swim and will not make your child drown proof entirely.

Although I support the use of PFD’s as a water safety practice, its use for learning how to swim may interfere with actual swimming skills.  Sure it is a great addition for any learn to swim program to learn how to use it, but learning how to swim while wearing it all the time may not be as effective hindering some basic swimming skills.  Float belts and vests can keep a child above water but can also tip a child forward or backward.  If the child tips forward, and not being watched, and is unable to lift their head up they can drown.  Water wings, which are the most commonly used “floaties”, are just as dangerous.  Because water wings are used on the upper arms, they prevent a child from using the correct swimming stroke or motion to move themselves through the water.  Plus, if a child raises their arms above their head, their head can sink down below the water’s surface causing panic and again drowning if not watched. 

Just because a flotation device meets a weight requirement doesn’t mean it is suitable for the child wearing it.  In my opinion, PFD’s sometimes give parents and children a false sense of security.  Parents are more likely to let their guard down when watching a child for they believe the PFD’s will completely protect the child.  Remember that all it takes is one malfunction of the device or a split second of not supervising your child.  I have seen “floaties” pop or slip off with one good cannonball.  Without a guardian to properly supervise a child and/or the child’s swimming knowledge, there is potential for a drowning to occur.  We don’t want for our children to start believing that it’s fine to be in water just by themselves using a PFD and without supervision, because they may think they will always stay afloat.

I remember when I was teaching a swim lesson one day, a mother and her child were participating in another class.  The mother put a float belt on the child and turn away to do some other things. The child jumped in the water and the float belt popped off and the child went under water.  As I was there already in the water I grabbed the child, pulled him up and out of the water.  It wasn’t until I sat the kid on the deck and said “mam” did the mother turn around.  The second attempt on the float belt worked and it stayed in place and all was well.  This is an example of the mother taking for granted that the PFD will protect the child completely.

As always, nothing can ever take the place of knowing how to swim.  PFD’s can be use for water safety but knowing how to swim is forever.  My personal opinion is that it’s never too early to learn how to swim but children by the age of 3-4 should start learning how to swim and should be completely out of PFD’s when actually learning how to swim by age 6.  PFD’s used on children 6 and older are no longer an aide but a crutch and may hinder the process of learning how to swim.  When older children who don’t know how to swim get with others their age that do know how to swim, they are less likely to wear PFD’s in fear of being made fun of.  We see this pattern sometimes with adults as well.  

PFD’s can be helpful when used for their intended purpose but unintended dangers lie within.  Remember nothing takes the place of or will keep you safer then knowing how to swim, and never leave your child unattended.


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About Jenelle Lockard

Jenelle Lockard is an adjunct faculty swimming instructor for Penn State- Altoona and a do sales for Greenwood Pools. She is a Lifeguard/Cpr/First Aid Instructor, Pesticides Applicator in PA, and a Certified Pool Operator. She enjoys teaching swimming lessons, water aerobics, and work with local companies and pools in water safety and compliance issues.

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