The mothers say they bought the “puddle jumper” children’s swim aids to keep their children safe in the water.

Colorful and buoyant, they’re produced by an array of manufacturers under various names, including the Original Puddle Jumper and Splash Jammer.

Now, Nicole Hughes says, she wishes she had never seen one.

“We genuinely thought that was the best thing to do,” says Hughes, a writing teacher who says she always put her 3-year-old son Levi in the one-piece, wraparound floatie for his chest and upper arms whenever he was in a swimming pool.

On a family vacation in 2018, Levi drowned.

His mother says the floatie vests teach young children to be upright and vertical in the water — the wrong body position for learning how to back float or swim. And by making it effortless to bob around, chin above water and arms unmoving, the devices leave little kids feeling like they can independently swim, even though they can’t, she says.

Levi had his off when he drowned.

Levi Hughes loved his wraparound flotation device, but Nicole Hughes believes it gave her 3-year-old son a false sense of confidence. He drowned in 2018 on a family vacation.
Levi Hughes loved his wraparound flotation device, but Nicole Hughes believes it gave her 3-year-old son a false sense of confidence. He drowned in 2018 on a family vacation.
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The day he died in June 2018, Hughes, who lives in Tennessee, was with her husband, children and friends at a rented beach house on vacation. Five families were there, including 12 adults — half of them doctors — and 17 kids. The group had played in the pool earlier and was waiting to go crab hunting when Levi, now out of his floatie vest, came over to his mom. She split a brownie, gave him half and kissed his head.

Hughes has relived the next moments endlessly. She closed a bag of chips, threw something away, put the other half of the brownie in her mouth — “it was less than a minute, it was so fast” — and realized Levi was gone.

She looked out at the pool and saw him — his bright yellow T-shirt visible from the deep end.

She and another adult leapt in and pulled Levi out. The group, which included five cardiothoracic anesthesiology physicians, got his pulse back before an ambulance came, but Levi died.

Hughes and other parents of young kids who’ve drowned are warning against using the popular flotation devices their kids always wore — until they accidentally entered the water without one.

Some of the floaties are labeled “U.S. Coast Guard-approved.” Hughes says that leads parents to think the government has evaluated them as a “learn-to-swim” aid, as some are marketed. In fact, the Coast Guard rates flotation devices only for their functionality on vessels in open water.

Nicole Hughes holding her son Levi on a beach outing.
Nicole Hughes holding her son Levi on a beach outing.
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A spokeswoman for Newell Brands’ Original Puddle Jumper says the devices “are carefully and thoughtfully engineered and tested to U.S. Coast Guard requirements to offer the maximum comfort, flexibility, range of motion and in-water safety and stability for children” and, “when properly used, helping to protect children learning to swim.”

She says they shouldn’t be relied on, though, in place of adult supervision, swim survival lessons and safety education.

A spokeswoman for Speedo USA, the manufacturer of the Splash Jammer brand devices, says: “We have the deepest sympathy with anyone who has dealt with the tragedy of a youth drowning. All our flotation devices are thoroughly tested by independent industry experts and are U.S. Coast Guard-approved. Learning to swim starts with feeling confident in and around water, and flotation devices can support this important first step.”

The American Red Cross recommends that young children experience time in the water with hands-on adult supervision — and no floaties.

It also advises that Coast Guard-approved life jackets, not puddle jumpers, “be worn … when it is play time — especially if the child is relying on a flotation device for safety.”

Dr. Ben Hoffman, who chairs the Itasca-based American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention, says “it’s hard to find fault” with the products’ buoyancy but that calling them learn-to-swim aids is a stretch.

Hoffman says there’s no solid research on whether they promote or impede swimming skills: “We just don’t know.”

But Lisa Zarda, executive director of the United States Swim School Association, advises parents to avoid them.

“Kids get so used to the puddle jumpers that they think they can jump in the pool, and they’ll be just fine,” Zarda says.

Groups involved with drowning prevention say multiple safety steps are necessary to protect kids from drowning, which is the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children 1 to 4 years old, responsible between 2008 and 2018 for the deaths of 4,645 children in that age range nationally.

That multi-layered approach to child water safety includes having four-sided fencing around pools, with latches and alarms, and always having a watchful adult there when kids are swimming.

Experts say child drownings are usually silent deaths and can happen in as little as 20 seconds.

Christi Brown, a Texas mother whose 3-year-old son drowned in 2016, says her group, the Judah Brown Project, has heard from numerous families who believe their children’s faithful use of flotation vests predisposed them to drowning.

Judah Brown leaps into the water wearing a flotation vest. His mother Christi Brown says the device gave him a false sense of confidence and taught poor body positioning, which she believes put him at greater risk. He was 3 when he drowned, having gone in the water not wearing it.
Judah Brown leaps into the water wearing a flotation vest. His mother Christi Brown says the device gave him a false sense of confidence and taught poor body positioning, which she believes put him at greater risk. He was 3 when he drowned, having gone in the water not wearing it.
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Christi Brown became an advocate for drowning prevention after the death of her son Judah in 2016.
Christi Brown became an advocate for drowning prevention after the death of her son Judah in 2016.
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“The vertical position in the water is the drowning position,” Brown says.

Very young children, with their relatively large heads, can’t keep their chins above the water line even as their legs furiously cycle below, she says.

Jenny Bennett leans in to catch her toddler son Jackson, who loved to wear his floatie vest.
Jenny Bennett leans in to catch her toddler son Jackson, who loved to wear his floatie vest.
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“They’re expending all that energy, and they’re not able to get up and get air,” Brown says.

Jenny Bennett is a registered nurse in Texas whose 18-month-old son Jackson loved to bob in his flotation vest with his family. He drowned in 2016 after quietly squeezing through a doggie door that was accidentally left unlocked. He wasn’t the vest.

Bennett would like to replace the prevailing “water baby” culture that praises floatie-wrapped toddlers.

“Our entire culture surrounding young children and water is all wrong,” says Bennett, who, as co-founder of the organization Parents Preventing Childhood Drowning, says she knows “at least 50” families who used the devices before experiencing a drowning.

Jenny Bennett is lying next to her 18-month-old son, Jackson, on a hospital bed after his drowning accident. He did not survive.
Jenny Bennett with Jackson in the hospital after his drowning accident. He did not survive.
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Bennett, Brown and Hughes are advocates of what’s called Infant Swimming Resource — ISR — training, a series of 10-minute daily lessons for children as young as 6 months that teaches the “muscle memory” skill of floating on their backs.

Dominic Altobelli, 14 months old, gets an individualized back float lesson at CAST Water Safety Foundation’s pool in Forest Park.
Dominic Altobelli, 14 months old, gets an individualized back float lesson at CAST Water Safety Foundation’s pool in Forest Park.
Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

The idea is that, if a young child accidentally falls in, he’d float long enough for someone to notice and come to the rescue.

“They’re so much safer in the [back] float,” says Liz Huber, founder of the nonprofit CAST Water Safety Foundation in Forest Park, which last fall opened an ISR swim school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says there’s no evidence that such infant swimming programs are beneficial.

But Kelly Wulf, who moved from Lake in the Hills to downstate O’Fallon, feels differently after enrolling her young twin daughters in a different ISR course.

“Within five weeks, it was amazing what they could do,” Wulf says. “They’re not drown-proof. This is just an added layer of protection.”