A pair of blown-up plastic tubes scooted up a child’s arms isn’t designed to keep a swimmer safe. Water wings, floaties, swimmies, inflatable armbands, or whatever you want to call them are meant as something else. “They’re toys,” says Benjamin Hoffman, a pediatrician at Oregon Health & Science University. “And you can’t trust a toy to save a child.”
Playing in the pool, lake, or ocean is a sacred summer tradition for many families, but it’s also dangerous. Twelve kids die from drowning every week in the U.S., not because of negligent caregivers, but because an accident can occur in an instant. “Most people underestimate the risk of drowning. They don’t understand how quick and silent and common it is,” warns Hoffman.
Which is why so many parents, especially those of younger children, rightfully turn to flotation devices to help keep their kids safe. Any lifejacket or puddle jumper that’s been approved by U.S. Coast Guard will do just that. These devices have met certain safety standards to maintain their buoyancy, stay on, and keep swimmers’ faces out of the water. When choosing a floatation device, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends looking for USCG approval on the label.
Water wings don’t carry that approval for a reason: The tubes can slide or be pulled off, pop or slowly deflate, leaving a droopy ring of plastic. That being said, they’re bright, they float, and therefore it’s easy to misinterpret their purpose. “It gives parents and children a false sense of security,” says Candice Dye, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “They think that they’re doing the right thing.”
American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests that children over the age of 1 take swim lessons when possible, in an updated policy statement issued in May. “The challenge within that is all 1-year olds are different from each other,” says Hoffman, one of the authors of the report. Some are ready for lessons while plenty of 4-year-olds still are not.
No matter what a young swimmer might be wearing or how many swim lessons they’ve had, they always need an attentive, competent supervisor nearby — someone solely focused on monitoring the kids, who can perform CPR, and feels comfortable in the water.
And if a kid is just a beginner swimmer, a watchful guardian should be in the water with them no more than an arm’s length away. “A caregiver needs to be able to touch the child at all times in the water,” says Sarah Denny, a physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and another author of the paper.
No magic arm floaties will keep a kid safe in the water. They’re fine for confident swimmers to play with, along with foam noodles and blow-up unicorns and water guns. For an alert, vigilant supervisor though, there’s no replacement.