Selecting a life jacket for your child

As of May 2005, Minnesota law requires a life jacket to be worn by children less than 10 years of age when aboard watercraft in Minnesota when the craft is under way (not tied up at a dock or permanent mooring).

What is a life jacket and why does my child need to wear one?

A life jacket is a U.S. Coast Guard approved device that helps the wearer float if they enter the water.

A child should wear a life jacket anytime they are near water such as in a boat or float tube as well as on docks and river banks and at the beach when allowed by the life guard.

Contrary to many TV shows and the movies, drowning is usually silent. A victim (of any age) in the process of drowning can NOT cry out for help. They just bob up and down in the water, their head tipped back, mouth wide open gasping for air, and they are silent. It takes as little as 30 - 45 seconds for a child non-swimmer and it usually happens when an adult is nearby but doesn't recognize the telltale signs of a child in distress in the water.

Get your kids interested in water safety. Download and print the Water Safety Coloring & Activity Book or the H2O Toons Comic Book. These publications are in PDF format.

Find a safe fit for your child

How do I make sure I'm using the right life jacket?

If you own a boat or plan on renting a boat or boating with a friend, you need to buy your child their own life jacket. Life jackets come in various types and sizes and there may not be a life jacket of the proper size and type to rent or borrow.

When buying a child's life jacket, check for:

  • U.S. Coast Guard approved label.
  • A snug fit. Check weight and chest size on the label and try the life jacket on your child right at the store. Pick up your child by the shoulders of the life jacket; and tell them to raise their arms and relax. The child's chin and ears won't slip through a properly fitting jacket. Do NOT buy a jacket that is too large, hoping the child will grow into it. Children come in many sizes and shapes. If a lifejacket style does not work well, try another one.
  • Head support for younger children. A well designed life jacket will support the child's head when the child is in the water. The head support also serves to roll the child face up.
  • A strap between the legs for younger children. This helps prevent the jacket from coming off over the child's head.
  • Selecting a fit for children between 30 and 50 pounds. While some children weighing between 30 and 50 pounds may like the freedom of movement that a Type III life jacket provides, only children that can swim and are comfortable in the water should use a Type III. Most children in this weight range should wear a Type I or Type II life jacket.
  • Comfort and appearance. This is especially important for teens, who are less likely to wear a life jacket.

Remember: life jackets only work when they are worn, and they do not take the place of adult supervision!

Proper use of a life jacket

Here's some pointers for keeping your child safe.

  • Every spring, check the life jacket for fit as well as wear and tear. Throw it away if you find air leakage, mildew, rot or rust. Cut up discarded life jackets so someone else doesn't try to use them.
  • If a child panics in the water and thrashes about, they may turn onto his face, even though a life jacket with a collar is designed to keep them on their back with face out of the water. Have your child practice wearing a life jacket in the water - this will help prevent panic and rolling over.
  • Never cut or alter a life jacket in any way. It will no longer be Coast Guard approved since it may lose its effectiveness.
  • Wear your own life jacket to set an example for your child, and to enable you to help your child if an emergency occurs.
  • Never use toys like plastic rings, arm floaties or water wings in place of a life jacket.
  • Don't try wrapping a life jacket around a car seat for your baby. Much of the time, a car seat expelled from a boat in a crash or capsizing accident will flip upside down, holding your baby's face under water.
  • Some infants are too small for any life jacket, even though the label may say 0-30 lbs. In general, babies under 6 months or 16 pounds are too small for a life jacket to be effective due to the extreme size of their head in relationship to their body mass. If your infant is newborn, please consider waiting until the baby is a little older before taking them boating.

Adult life jackets

More information about life jackets can be found in the Minnesota DNR Boating Guide (1.82 Mb) .

Exemptions from wearing

The following are exemptions to the law:

  • When in an enclosed cabin or below the top deck on a watercraft.
  • When on an anchored boat that is a platform for swimming or diving.
  • When aboard a charter (passenger) craft with a licensed captain.

Interaction with existing federal regulations

Interaction with existing federal regulation requiring children less than 13 to wear life jackets:
"Federal regulation automatically adopts state law as the standard under Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 33 175.25"

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