boy in life jacket
Every time I’m in the toy section at Target, I walk down the aisle of goggles, swim toys, and floaties. And every time I see a parent reach for inflatable arm bands or a something, I want to shout “NO!” and lunge at her and snatch the item out of her hands.
To most people, this might seem like an extreme reaction, but not to me. I’m a survival swimming instructor here in Naples, and I hate floaties. I may even have to have an “I Hate Floaties” t-shirt made. I teach babies and toddlers how to stay safe in the water, and floaties make my job so much harder.
So why in the world do I hate floaties? Aren’t they fun for kids, don’t they keep them safe in the water? My answer: kids also think that it’s fun to run out into traffic, and no, they do not keep kids safe.
By floaties, I’m referring to inflatable arm bands, bathing suits with floats sewn into them, and puddle jumpers. My definition does not include toys like pool noodles, kick boards, or floats. The problem with floaties is that they give both children and parents a false sense of security. Parents think they can relax and let a child play by himself in the water, forgetting that a kid (even those younger than two years old) can remove any floatie if he really wants to.
But more importantly, floaties give children a sense that they can stay afloat in the water at all times. A child who spends most of her time in the pool wearing a floatie believes that she is swimming unassisted, and so will also think that she can stay above the water without a floatie. I want children to respect the water: not to fear it, but to understand that they have limitations. Children who wear floaties all of the time don’t have that understanding.
The wrong position
The most efficient position for swimming is horizontal. Floaties keep kids vertical. Treading water, or trying to swim with your head above the water takes so much more effort and energy than swimming in the proper horizontal position or floating on your back. When I start a new student, I can always tell who wears floaties because they start out swimming vertically, and it can take me a long time to correct that.
I currently have an 18-month-old student who can swim 10 yards underwater by herself, because her feet are at or near the surface at all times. She has never worn a floatie. Another student, 2.5 years old, can barely cover one yard because his feet drop every time he starts to swim. He is exhausted after those few feet because it’s such a struggle to push his body through the water. He is a floatie addict and cries for his floatie at every lesson. I keep telling him that in a few weeks, he won’t need his floatie because he will be swimming and floating all over the pool by himself.
I know many survival instructors who believe floaties should never be used, under any circumstances. I, however, understand that in some situations, floaties can serve a purpose. If you have more than one child, or know that your attention may be taken from the water (at a party, for example), a life jacket or a puddle jumper (please, never, ever use inflatable arm bands) can help, but should never substitute for direct supervision. You also can incorporate floaties into a family play session in the pool. Many of my swim families use this rule: children have to swim for 20 minutes without a floatie. Many kids end up not resorting to a floatie after the 20 minutes, and those that do have had enough time in the water unassisted to understand their limitations.
The best options
Life jackets and puddle jumpers have the added benefit of being U.S. Coast Guard approved for use on boats, and life jackets are the hardest of all floaties for a child to remove by himself. Inflatable arm bands can easily be taken off, and also often deflate. Swim suits with floats that you can remove put children out of balance and make swimming difficult.
So think twice before you use a floatie, and use them wisely and sparingly. But above all, have fun with your children in the water this summer.
Leigh Ann Newman is certified by PediaSwim as survival swimming instructor and is a member of the Infant Aquatics Network. She teaches children ages 6 months to 6 years in Naples and Bonita Springs. Visit www.abcswimschoolnaples.com or call (239) 272-0529 for more information.