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Children and life jackets

Often, during the warm summer months, our office receives many calls regarding child life jacket laws and regulations. Although the safety recommendation is that everyone should wear a life jacket, there are certain restrictions on usage by age.

A legal measure that went into effect in 2005 requires that children under age 10 wear a life jacket while boating in Minnesota when aboard a watercraft when the craft is under way (not tied up at a dock or permanent mooring).

There are three exceptions to the law:

1. When in an enclosed cabin or below the top deck on a watercraft.

2. When on an anchored boat that is a platform for swimming or diving.

3. When aboard a charter (passenger) craft with a licensed captain.

As a general safety precaution, we feel that a child should always wear a life jacket anytime they are near water, including when they are in a boat or float tube, as well as on docks, riverbanks and at the beach.

Drowning is usually silent. A victim of any age in the process of drowning cannot 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 to drown and it usually happens when an adult is nearby but doesn’t recognize the telltale signs of a child in distress in the water.

Each child should have their own life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD). PFDs come in various types and sizes and there may not be a PFD of the proper size and type to rent or borrow.

The Minnesota DNR and the Cass County Sheriffs Office offer the following tips to be considered when purchasing life jackets for children:

• U.S. Coast Guard approved label.

• A snug fit. Check weight and chest size on the label and try the PFD on your child right at the store. Pick up your child by the shoulders of the PFD; and tell them to raise their arms and relax. The child’s chin and ears won’t slip through a properly fitting vest. Do not buy a vest that is too large, hoping the child will grow into it.

• Head support for younger children. A well designed PFD 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 vest from coming off over the child’s head.

• Comfort and appearance. This is especially important for teens, who are less likely to wear a PFD.

The following are some tips for keeping your children safe while on or near the water:

• 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.

• Never cut or alter a PFD 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 floats or water wings in place of a PFD.

• 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 pounds. 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

The Cass County Sheriffs Office Recreational Division offers boating safety courses through area schools in May. There are three other ways to receive your boating and water safety certification:

1. Online Course ( This is an interactive online boating safety course that 12-17 year olds can take to receive their Minnesota Watercraft Operators permit or Minnesota Boater Education Certificate (for those 18 or older).

2. Home Study Course (DNR website): 12-17 year olds can take this course to receive their Minnesota Watercraft Operators Permit.

3. Classroom courses are generally offered through area organizations, schools and community groups. Watch local newspapers event calendars for upcoming courses.

Remember: PFDs only work when they are worn, and they do not take the place of adult supervision.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, please feel free to contact me anytime using one of the following methods: Email at, call (218) 547-1424 or (800) 450-2677 or send via mail to Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave W., P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN 56484.