Mom's Guide to Life Jackets For Kids

According to the CPSC, drownings are the leading accidental cause of death in ages 1-4, and in summer 2014, 112 children under the age of 5 drowned in a pool or spa.

These statistics speak for themselves: we need to do a much better job of keeping our kids safe when we're around water.

Life jackets (also known as PFDs - personal flotation devices, or life vests) are one of the best ways to keep safe in the water. If you're going to be out in a boat or kayak, your child should absolutely have one on.

Life Jackets 101: Breaking it Down

There are three different classifications of life jackets: Type I, Type II and Type III.

Type I is designated for people stranded in rough, open water that won't face rescue for a while. This isn't really the type of life vest you should be looking for.

Type II is what you should be focusing on. These are the "classic" life vest, the ones you're probably familliar with. They're typically designed for people close to land, and they're not as bulky or expensive as Type I jackets.

Type II jackets will typically upright an unconscious person in the water, and the same goes for babies, who don't have the reflex to fight and save themselves. This makes them ideal!

Type III jackets are made for use close to shore, and aren't really designed to upright an unconscious person. While they're the most comfortable, they aren't suitable for babies or young children.

I'd strongly recommend a Type II jacket for infants or small children, especially if you'll be out in a boat!

A Word of Warning

The US Coastguard says that life jackets for children under 18 pounds might not offer a proper fit:

The Coast Guard does not recommend taking infants onboard a recreational boat. The PFDs currently available for newborns up to 18 pounds may not provide a proper fit to perform as expected.

Unless the parent is able to test their newborns out in a PFD, sized for infants, in a swimming pool, they will not know if that device will float their child with his/her head out of the water.  You must be sure you know the PFD you have works for your infant.

Otherwise we recommend the child not be exposed to any risk in a boat on the water.

Therefore, when you buy a life jacket, you should test it own to make sure it works properly and that the fit is right before you take it out in a boat. A wading pool would even work!

By law, in the United States, all children must wear a life jacket in a moving boat. The age cutoffs differ state-by-state, and you can look up the laws for your particular state on the BoatUS website.

No matter what the law states, however, you really should have your child in a life jacket at all times if you're in a boat. Even if they hate it.

Look For the US Coast Guard Logo

Any good life jacket will be approved by the US Coast Guard. The manufacturer should state that it is, and there will be a logo on it somewhere, too. When it comes to the laws requiring life jackets, if it's not USCG certified, it doesn't meet the requirements.

Proper Fit: Absolutely Necessary

It's extremely important that the life jacket fits properly!

Infant life jackets are typically sized by weight, and you should get one that's precisely the right size. Don't be tempted to size up, because if it's even just a little too big, it's not safe.

To make sure it fits, there are a few things you can do.

First of all, raise their arms above their head. If the life jacket touches their ears or chin, it might be too big. You can also try lifting them by the shoulders of the jacket, and if they slip through it, it's probably too big.

On the other hand, it's usually pretty easy to tell if it's too small. If they seem like they're struggling to breathe properly, or it seems too snug, it's probably too small and therefore unsafe.

The Float Test: Do it First

The best way to test out your new life jacket is to take them to the pool. Then, when the life jacket is on them, gently place them face-down in the water.

If the jacket is working properly and fits properly, it should flip them onto their back instantly, keeping their face out of the water.

If this doesn't happen, don't use the life jacket. It's not safe, so unfortunately, you're gonna have to get a different one.

Don't Buy Used. Ever.

Do life jackets expire? Yes, they do, and it's unsafe to use an old one. Especially an old one that someone else used, and you have no idea how well it was taken care of.

If a life jacket is left in the sun, it can become brittle and the inner foam can become waterlogged, making it less efficient, if it works at all.

A life jacket isn't expensive, and it's not worth saving a few bucks to get a used one.  Just get a new one! It's well worth it.

Features of All Good Baby Life Vests

There are 5 main criteria I think are absolutely vital in any good life vest for young children:

  1. United States Coast Guard Seal of Approval: means it's tested and safe.
  2. A flotation collar: keeps their head above the water.
  3. A crotch strap: to secure it tightly to their body.
  4. A grab loop: to quickly get them out of the water if they fall in.
  5. Keeps child face up: obviously a good safety feature.

Your Choices In Baby Life Jackets

There are a handful of good choices when it comes to life vests.

The following are all US Coast Guard Approved and meet my 5 criteria above. Please remember to get one that's the proper size for your child, however!

My Fav (The Best!): Stohlquist Unisex Nemo Infant Life Jacket

Stohlquist Life Jacket
My favorite infant life jacket! The Stohlquist Unisex Nemo (click here to check the price) is a good, comfortable option; the front is cut in a V-shape, so it doesn't get in the child's face.

Of course, it's USCG certified and has a crotch strap and grab handle, like any good life vest. Unlike the Sterns, this one isn't quite as bulky, so it's a little more comfortable to wear, especially for longer periods of time.

A lot of parents talk about how well this fits their young babies, even as young as 8 weeks old! Of course, you should be extra careful that it fits properly when you try it on, but it's hard to find one that works for children so young, so this is nice.

All things considered, this is a pretty great baby life jacket that comes highly recommended.

Another Decent One: Stearns Infant Classic Boating Vest

Stearns Infant Life Jacket
The Stearns Infant Classic Boating Vest (click here to see it in more detail) has a float above the neck designed to keep the child's head above the water if they fall in, and of course, meets all of my criteria, being Coast Guard approved and with a strap and rescue handle.

It's suitable and designed for children under 30 lbs, and supposedly fits 8 pounds and up.

I read an online post from a grandmother who said their child fell into the lake wearing this life jacket and it immediately flipped them onto their back, so that's pretty awesome.

Unfortunately, it's not super comfortable, but there's not really a such thing as a comfortable life vest. It gets the job done.

It comes in blue, red and orange, but when buying a life jacket, I recommend a more neon color, because it's a lot easier to see in the water.

A Good Option: O'Neill Wake Waterski Infant USCG Vest

O'Neill wake Waterski Jacket
Another jacket that fits well on younger kids, the O'Neill vest (click here to see it on Amazon) has very good reviews and a lot of parents say it does exactly what it should: flip the kids onto their back if they fall in the water.

It has all of the proper safety features: USCG approval, crotch strap, it's a Type II vest and it has a rescue grab in the case of an emergency.

It seems to be more comfortable than the Stearns jacket, and kids don't whine much when wearing it. But I mean, it is a life jacket, so it's not overly comfortable. At least it's less bulky.

It has an inflated neck support, which keeps the head elevated if they fall in the water, and is reliable and safe.

What's best is that it's not very expensive! It's pretty cheap for a good, safe life vest for babies.

For Older Kids & Teaching to Swim: Stearns Kids Puddle Jumper

Stearns Puddle Jumper
For older toddlers around 30-50lbs, the Stearns Puddle Jumper (click here to see more reviews) are awesome for teaching kids to swim.

It's a type III device, meaning it's not fit for using as an actual life jacket, but it's perfect for teaching them to swim. Remember those water wings we used to wear as kids? This is basically the upgraded and modern version of it.

If you've ever put water wings on your child, you know how easy it is for them to tear them off themselves. The Puddle Jumper is impossible for the child to take off themselves, so it's a lot safer in this regard!

It's meant for kids about 3-6 years old, but some people get away with it for their kids as young as 2.

It's a lot more comfortable compared to the Type II jackets, but again, it's more for general water safety and not for use on boats. It won't flip the child onto their back if they fall in the water, and it doesn't have the grab harness.

It's a pretty good option, especially for teaching kids to swim!

Summing it All Up

Life jackets are very important, especially if you're going to be out on a boat.

On top of that, it's very important that the jacket is safe, proper-fitting and in good condition.

If you have any questions or concerns about this guide, please let me know in the comments section below!

Don't Miss The Rest of My Summer Safety Series!

Summer is a fun time, but there are a lot of dangers and concerns during those hot (and sometimes wet) months.

The other articles in my Summer Safety series:

(photo credit: jenpilot)

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