If you tell people that you've taken teensy, just-born babies out on the water—be it in a raft, a sailboat, or a 15-horsepower runabout—invariably, the first question you'll get is, “They make lifejackets that small?” Yes, in fact, they do.
But not all infant PFDs are created equal. When our older daughter, Pippa, was a month old and traveled to Stony Lake for the first time, my mother rustled up some ancient lifejacket from the depths of the boathouse that looked like it’d been around since my infancy a billion years ago. It had surely been an adequate piece of flotation apparatus in its day, but its day was most definitely past. The chest and back flotation panels had faded from rescue-me! orange to rust-colored sepia, and the buckle on the crotch strap had to be re-threaded. We used it for a few weeks, and even cinched down to its tightest, most compact size, it still swallowed the baby. She was all PFD, no Pippa (exhibit A). Surprisingly, it didn’t seem to bother her that the zipper rode up to her chin and she could barely flap her little arms—swaddled in her lifejacket, she zonked out the minute we started the engine. But what killed the deal for us was the float test: When, a few weeks in, we tossed the PFD into the lake—sans baby, of course—it sopped up water like a sponge and listed ominously to port.
We were about to unearth another similar mini PFD from the mountain of lifejackets in the back hall when a cottage friend clued me into The World’s Best Infant Life Jacket, Period. Made by Canadian marine safety company Salus, the Bijoux offers a radical re-think on standard PFD design. Instead of a scaled-down, beefed-up adult jacket—zipping and buckling across the chest and securing with a crotch strap—the Bijoux is designed to go on like a mesh harness between the legs, and its one-piece front flotation panel buckles on either side of the neck. This gives it a snug fit without dreaded chin-pinch and ensures that the baby will turn face up in the water. Key!
The Bijoux’s pterodactyl-like, three-piece collar pillows the baby's head and is topped with a generous grab handle. The mesh webbing across the back affords the tot huge range of motion for building sandcastles, toddling down the dock, or just snoozing in a bassinet under the deck (exhibit b). Also nice: A mesh pocket keeps pacifiers handy. Made in Canada and rated for infants from nine to 25 pounds, the Bijoux won the Canadian Safe Boating Award in 2006 (US Coast Guard Approval is pending).
Exhibit B: Ahh, that's better....
Our Bijoux has been in rotation four summers now, and it hasn’t lost any of its buoyancy. In fact, nearly every day in July, we placed one-year-old Maisy in the lake in her PFD and let her bob happily around on her back while her sister flung herself off the dock wearing the same decrepit Styrofoam swimming bubble I wore when I was three.
My friend Jillian, who is a pediatrician, has twin 18-month-olds and like us, spends her summer on an island and goes everywhere by boat. For safety and sanity’s sake, she tied jump ropes to the back of their lifejackets, like leashes (exhibit C), to keep her water babies from accidentally walking off the end of a dock, falling overboard, or just completely stressing her out. Twins on strings!
Exhibit C: Whatever works....
To rig your own PFD leash, take a jump rope and double it through the strap at the back of the Bijoux and knot together, so the handles are closest to you. Jill also recommends tying a couple knots along the length of the rope so the baby won’t get tangled. As she says, “The babies love the ropes, as they can tell it affords them greater freedom outside. That way you don't have to hold their hands or arms, which they dislike. Also they can lean over water while you’re holding the rope. And they learned to navigate the tricky terrain without holding a hand. If they are falling, you can pull up on rope to catch them, like a marionette.” Of course, it goes without saying, never tie them to the boat—or anything—as this would compromise their safety big time.
Now that Maisy has started walking, I definitely plan on rigging a DIY lifejacket leash when we raft the San Juan River again next month. Thanks, Jill!
Salus Bijoux, $79.95, available from Mountain Baby and other online retailers. Salus also makes terrific kids' PFDs for boaters 30 pounds and up.