The 4 Best Kid's Life Jackets For Water Safety
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“When your child is playing in or near water, on boats or docks, they should be wearing a life jacket,” advises Erin Summa, CPH, who works at the Center for Childhood Safety at the Tacoma, Washington-based Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. But the best kid’s life jacket is only helpful because it actually works — so you’ll first want to look for one that has been certified and rated by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which Summa points out is “a sign that the product is a legitimate personal floatation device.” The USCG’s rating also tells you if the jacket is suitable for children in general and for the specific activity (and water conditions) that your child will be involved with, so you can be sure you’re on the right track. In addition, you’ll want to choose a life jacket that’s appropriate for your child’s weight and any other measurements the manufacturer uses for sizing.
The USCG has five different life jackets, and while Types I, II, and III are approved for children, only Types II and III are currently available to the public. According to Megan Ferraro, Executive Director at The ZAC Foundation, which works to improve water safety, Type II life jackets “are specifically designed for supervised activities where swimmers are on calm or inland waters,” and most general boating activities where “a quick rescue is likely.” According to the USCG, Type II life jackets are intended to turn an unconscious person face up. That said, Type III life jackets are usually the most comfortable to wear, since they tend to be less bulky, allowing for the most freedom of movement. Summa suggest that these life jackets are best for instances where “there is a chance for quick rescue” and only in calm, inland (rather than open) water. As detailed by the USCG, these life jackets are intended to support a conscious person in the water in an upright position, but aren’t intended to turn an unconscious person face up.
Most types of kid’s life jackets are inherently buoyant, meaning they’re made primarily from foam that’ll always float. While inflatable options are out there, these picks are not recommended by the USCG for kids under 16 — or for anyone who isn’t a strong swimmer — and Ferraro adds that “inflatable devices can lose air and will not keep kids afloat.” In other words, you’ll want to steer clear of these. Another less traditional kid’s life jacket you might encounter is a puddle jumper, which is essentially a life jacket and arm floatie combo. Some puddle jumpers are actually approved by the USCG as a personal flotation device. However, many people have mixed feedback surrounding their safety, particularly because they put children in a vertical position that’s not ideal for swimming and they may give children a false sense of security. Use these products at your own discretion.
If you are seeking a life jacket for an infant, there are some options that are designed for babies that weigh 0 to 30 pounds or so. However, keep in mind that the USCG doesn’t recommend taking infants on recreational boats and suggests that the personal flotation devices that you can find for newborns weighing up to 18 pounds cannot be assumed to fit or keep the baby’s head out of the water.
Finally, no matter the kind of life jacket or size you choose, Summa points out that “life jackets can only save lives if they’re worn and worn properly.” In order to make wearing a life jacket a little more appealing to your child, consider choosing one in a color or pattern that’s eye-catching. It’s also vital to ensure that the life jacket fits your child properly. Summa’s advice? “Fasten all buckles, zippers, straps and ties—and then pull them snug. When you pull up from the shoulders, the life jacket should not slide up their body,” she counsels. “If it slips up their chin or ears, tighten it again. If that doesn’t work, try a different life jacket.”
These four life jackets are all USCG rated and approved, plus parents on Amazon indicate that their kiddos actually enjoy wearing them.
1. A Highly Rated Type III Life Jacket
With 3,800 and growing reviews on Amazon, plus a solid 4.6-star rating overall, this child’s life jacket from Oceans7 is a favorite on the site. And it makes total sense that parents like this life jacket, which comes in a couple of different colors. For one, the life jacket is USCG-rated and approved — it’s a Type III pick, so it is designed for use in calm, inland water. Additionally, the life jacket is ultra-comfortable to wear thanks to three adjustable straps, a slim profile, and an open-sided design for breathability. Made from durable nylon and foam, this pick is also quite lightweight, weighing just 12 ounces.
This life jacket comes in three different sizes — Infant, Child, and Youth — and you’ll want to choose one based on your child’s weight and chest size. The infant pick is for babies that weigh 30 pounds or less with an approximate chest size of 16 to 20 inches. The child’s size is for kids that weigh 30 to 50 pounds with a 20 to 25 inch chest size. And the youth size is for kids that weigh 50 to 90 pounds with an approximate chest size of 26 to 29 inches.
Enthusiastic Amazon review: “I finally found something that will fit my kids safely but also give them freedom to move around! These vests fit my 4 and 6 year olds great. Even though there’s plenty of slack in the straps for them to grow into, the vest still fit snugly enough to be safe. My 6 year old said he likes this much better than the puddle jumper he used to have.”
- Available sizes: Infant, Child, Youth
2. A Type II Youth Life Jacket For Under $20
With a price tag of less than $20, this life jacket from Kent is an absolute bargain. But don’t let that deter you from this pick; just because it’s low-cost doesn’t mean it skimps on quality. The life jacket is USCG-approved and rated — it’s considered a Type II life jacket, so it’s designed to turn an unconscious person face up in the water — and it’s constructed of heavy-duty nylon and foam. The bright orange color allows for super easy visibility in the water and on land. And this youth size is designed for kids that weigh 50 to 90 pounds.
Enthusiastic Amazon review: “Worked out extremely well for my 7 [year old]. Smooth and fast transaction.”
- Available size: Youth
3. An Inexpensive Type II Life Jacket That Comes In Child, Youth & Adult Sizes
If you’re looking for a Type II life jacket and want a range of size and color to choose from, this option from Seachoice might be the one — just know that shipping times might vary, so look closely at estimated shipping date before you order if you need it to come right away. Shipping times aside, however, the life jacket has a lot going for it. It’s a USCG-approved Type II jacket made from foam with a polyester shell, and it’s designed to flip a person onto their back. It comes in a Child size designed to fit kids between 30 and 50 pounds, a Youth size for kids weighing 50 to 90 pounds, and a few different adult sizes. The Child jacket has an adjustable waist belt, front ties, and a leg strap to keep the flotation device from riding up in the water. The Youth size just has a waist belt and front ties, while the adult sizes have only the waist belt.
Choose from a bright yellow or orange life jacket if you’re shopping for your kids. Adults also have a camouflage option.
Enthusiastic Amazon review: “My 4 year old outgrew his puddle jumper. He weighs about 50lbs. Needed a little kid size that’s coast guard approved for swim at friends pool. This fit the bill. I didn’t want to spend a lot for an item that we wouldn’t use more than once or twice but I still wanted safety. Purchased this in Youth size and it fits him perfectly. It should also last a few years. Seems like nice quality and I love the visibility of the bright yellow”
- Available sizes: Child, Youth, Adult, Adult XL
4. A Type III Life Jacket With Cute Character Designs
When it comes to life jackets, it honestly doesn’t get much cuter than this pick from Full Throttle, which comes in four fun designs — princess, turtle, lady bug, and dinosaur. The back of the life jacket has a piece of foam that’s decorated according to the theme of the jacket, too — your kiddo will totally love it! But looks aside, this pick is a high-quality life jacket. It’s USCG-approved and rated (it’s considered a Type III life jacket), and it’s made from ultra-durable nylon and foam. The zippered front and two adjustable waist belts help you achieve a secure fit, and there’s an additional leg strap that prevents the vest from riding up when they enter the water. The handle at the back allows you to easily pull your child from the water, if need be.
This pick is intended for kids that weigh 30 to 50 pounds.
Enthusiastic Amazon review: “Our nearly 3-year-old granddaughter absolutely loves this. We got it to make sure we would have a good PFD for her on a family vacation, but she loves to wear it just for the freedom of swimming in a lake or pool. It really keeps her head up, but she can jump into the water and be briefly under, then pop right up--great fun.”
- Available sizes: Child
You Might Also Like: A USCG-Approved Puddle Jumper
If you decide to go the puddle jumper route for your child, this Original Puddle Jumper from Stearns is truly the best of the best. But don’t just take my word for it; this puddle jumper is adored on Amazon, boasting a knockout 4.8-star rating overall, among 17,000 and growing reviews.
The puddle jumper is designed to fit snuggly on your child (it’s intended for kids that weigh 30 to 50 pounds) with an adjustable strap that allows for a nice, secure fit. This pick features a buckle closure that is actually in the back, so your child won’t be able to remove the vest on their own when it’s properly tightened. This puddle jumper has been tested and approved by the USCG for use as a Type V/III personal flotation device in, on, or near the water (Type V means it’s approved for specific uses in pools, water parks, and boats but may not be approved for every type of use).
Choose from a range of fun creature designs, including sharks, whales, fish, and fruit. Stearns sells puddle jumpers with other character designs, too, the only difference is that these are made from polyester, whereas the Original is made from nylon.
Enthusiastic Amazon review: “This product is very well made. It comes with a booklet clearly instructing its proper use with warnings and also showing other products which may be more useful for your type of situation. The color is vibrant and does not fade in the sun or with chlorine. The face is cheerful and cute and makes the child want to wear it more. It is much better than having just the pieces for the arms. The foam part that goes around the child's front upper body that is attached to the arm wings really helps with supporting the child and keeping him upright in the water. [...] this device does not support someone who is unconscious or who has a droopy head. My son is comfortable wearing it and can move his arms easily. My child is 4 years old and about 35lbs, and the fit is perfect for him.”
Erin Summa, CPH with the Center for Childhood Safety at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital
Megan Ferraro, Executive Director at The ZAC Foundation