With the 2008 summer recreational boating season in full swing, the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal Boating) are encouraging boating parents to make sure their children are safely buckled into a Coast Guard-approved life jacket at all times on or near the water.

California law requires that children under 12 years old wear a life jacket on boats 26 feet in length or less whenever the boat is under way, unless they are below deck or restrained by a tethered harness.

Taking an extra measure of safety can protect children in hazardous areas near the water as well, such as on piers, according to the Coast Guard.

Youth life jackets now have plenty of eye appeal, as marine manufacturers have incorporated new designs and technologies into children’s safety equipment, making life jackets and life jacket-type swimwear in bright colors and cartoon prints, the Coast Guard notes.

Children’s jackets are also constructed to provide extra protection. Many models for infants and toddlers have built-in head support that will turn the wearer face-up in the water, and most are built with extra buoyancy or other safety features just for children.

Height and weight can vary widely within age groups, so taking a child along for a life jacket fitting is very important. Parents are reminded that swim aids and water wings are toys and do not meet state requirements.

The U.S. Coast Guard label found on the inside of the life jacket shows that the jacket has passed stringent tests for safety and durability. The child’s weight should be matched to the range listed on the label.

While some children in the 30 to 50 pound weight range who can swim may like the extra freedom of movement that a Type III life jacket or belt pack provides, most children in this weight range, especially those who can’t swim, should wear a Type II life jacket, according to the Coast Guard.

Unlike shoes, a child’s life jacket should fit snugly from day one. Parents should never make the mistake of buying a life jacket that a child will “grow into.”

To check for a good fit, parents should put the life jacket on their child and then pick him or her up by the shulders of the jacket. If the jacket fits correctly, it will not ride up, and the child’s chin and ears will not slip through. A properly-sized life jacket will stay in place even when a child is lifted into the air.

Once a jacket is purchased, parents should make sure their child feels comfortable wearing it and they should always test its effectiveness in the water before going boating.

With the jacket on the child, parents should conduct a “float test” in a secure, non-boating setting, such as a swimming pool, and teach the child how to float in a relaxed, face-up position. Trying it out under controlled conditions will also mean less anxiety, should the child accidentally fall in the water while boating.

It is suggested that parents set a good example by wearing their own life jacket at all times on or near the water so their child will come to consider always wearing a life jacket as the natural thing to do.

Cal Boating now has life jackets for children and adults available on loan at local fire stations and other locations. Individuals and families can check out life jackets for a day or a weekend simply by completing a loan form. To find a Life Jacket Loan Station, the Cal Boating Web site at www.dbw.ca.gov/BoaterInfo /LifeJacket.aspx/.

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