Whether you and your family plan to sail the seven seas, learn a new water sport, or just simply want to go swimming with some peace of mind, then a life jacket is a must, especially for kids.
In most states, children under 13 are legally required to wear a life jacket on boats and during other water activities. But don’t just throw any life jacket on them! Finding a kid-specific life jacket that fits correctly and will provide them the security and flotation they need is crucial.
So we’ve taken a dive into the world of life jackets and found our favorite 10 best life jackets for kids that are perfect for every child, including babies and toddlers!
But there are a few things you need to know before you head to the store. So before we get to the list, let’s take a look at the types of life jackets there are and what you need to know before choosing the right life jacket for your little one.
In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top Picks…
Types of Life Jackets
A life jacket is a life jacket, right? Not so fast. There are actually three different types of life jackets and not all life jackets are suitable for kids.
- Inherently Buoyant: Made primarily of foam, these PFDs are used for all ages and for those who can and cannot swim. Some are throwable such as a ring or cushion while others are vests and can be designed for specific water sports.
- Inflatable: An inflatable life jacket should only be used by adults who can swim. The benefit of an inflatable life jacket is that when not in use they are very compact.
- Hybrid: Available for kids and adults, hybrid life jackets use a mix of foam and inflation. All hybrid jackets are suitable for those who can and cannot swim.
When looking for a life jacket for your little one it’s important to make sure the life vest is USCG approved. This means that it has been approved by the U.S. Coastal Guard. Check for the seal on the packaging to ensure it has been approved by the U.S. Coastal Guard. If it has not been approved by the USCG it means it does not meet their safety requirements and could put your child at risk.
There are many factors that will depend on which type of life jacket you will get for your child including activity, water conditions and more. Life jackets are broken down into different groups called “types”.
Let’s take a look at the 5 types of personal flotation devices.
- Type I: This type of life jacket can be used in all types of water including rough ocean waters. It keeps the wearer face up in the event that they have become unconscious. Typically, these jackets are bulky and can be difficult to swim in.
- Type II: This life jacket is used for calm waters where rescue is nearby. It can turn some wearers to a face-up position.
- Type III: This type is similar to Type II life jackets with the exception that the wearer will need to put themselves face-up when in the water. While this can be a good option for kids, do know that it will not face them upwards in the water and that they will need to have some swimming skills to do so.
- Type IV: This type of flotation device isn’t a vest at all. This type includes rings, cushions, and horseshoe buoys. These will not be included on our list.
- Type V: Type V flotation devices are for special use. These include work vest, deck suits, and others. We will not be including these on our list, either.
Life Jacket Safety Tips
Choosing the right life jacket for your child is essential. However, there are a few other things to keep in mind to keep them safe in the water.
- Regularly test the life jacket to ensure it still is buoyant and durable. If it is waterlogged or damaged, discontinue using it.
- Be sure that your child is wearing the right size vest. As your child grows they may need to go to the next size. Check the packaging to see what the weight range is for the vest as well as the chest size.
- Be sure to check state regulations when it comes to wearing a life jacket. If you and your family are on a boat that is 16 feet and over you will not only need to wear a life jacket but also will need a Type IV throwable flotation device on the boat.
- Never allow your child to wear an adult-sized life jacket.
- Be sure that your child’s life jacket fits snuggly on them. Children should not be able to wiggle out and the vest should not be able to go past their chin.
Caring for a Life Jacket
While life jackets are pretty low maintenance there are a few things you should do to get the longest life possible out of them.
- Allow the life jacket to air dry in between uses. However, keep it out of direct sunlight.
- Clean dirty life jackets with water and a mild detergent.
- Never squeeze and flatten a life jacket. This can damage the foam.
Top 10 Life Jackets for Kids
Summer is fun, but let’s keep it safe, too. We’ve got 10 great picks for life jackets for kids that will keep them safe and comfortable. You’ll notice some of the brands on this list – and all of them are U.S. Coast Guard approved.
So let’s dive into the list, shall we?
1. Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket
For infants and toddlers, the Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket is our top pick. Suitable for kids 8-30 pounds, this Type II personal floatation device will keep kids floating in a face-up position.
The front zipper and security buckle keep kids secure but also makes it easy for mom and dad to put this life jacket on. The double collar design supports kid’s heads in the water and a grab handle located on the back of the collar makes it easy to hang the jacket to dry as well as grab your child ASAP if needed.
The overall design of this lifejacket ensures kids have plenty of mobility and stay as comfortable as possible. The only downside is the higher price. But most parents agree that safety and comfort are priceless.
- Double collar supports the child’s head
- Easy to get on and off
- Crotch strap keeps the jacket from riding up
- Grab handle for quick retrieval as well as hanging up the vest to dry
- On the pricey side
2. O’Neill Child Superlite USCG Life Jacket
With the O’Neill Child Superlite USCG life jacket on, kids will look just like the pros. This jacket is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard which will give you peace of mind. Kids will love how comfortable it is thanks to the closed-cell PVC marine foam.
The coated polyester shell is soft and kids had no complaints. Quick-Release Safety Buckles, as well as the adjustable belt between the legs, keeps kids secure in the jacket while also keeping it easy to get it on and off.
The O’Neill Child Superlite USCG Life Jacket fits kids between 30-50 pounds.
- Soft, comfortable materials
- Quick-Release Safety Buckles make it easy to get on and off
- Lightweight PVC marine foam
- Adjustable crotch strap keeps the jacket on securely
- A durable life jacket will last a long time
- Sizing runs small
3. Full Throttle Child Water Buddies Life Vest
If kids need a little motivation to put on a life jacket, why not choose something a little fun like this Full Throttle Child Water Buddies Life Vest? Available in 5 kid-friendly designs, this life jacket is not only adorable but safe, too. The five designs to choose from include dinosaur, ladybug, princess, astronaut, and turtle.
The Full Throttle Water Buddies vest is a Type III U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device and not only has three adjustable straps but a zippered front, as well.
This vest will work for kids 30-50 pounds and comes at a very affordable price.
- 5 fun character designs to choose from
- Low price
- Zippered front plus three buckle straps
- Tighter fit. Maybe too snug for some kids
4. Speedo Child Personal Life Jacket
You likely know the name Speedo and you probably know they are the kings of all things water. So it’s no surprise that the Speedo Child Personal Life Jacket made our list. Speedo designed this life jacket just for kids to keep them extra safe while on the water.
This Speedo life jacket not only has traditional adjustable chest straps but leg straps, too, to keep kids extra safe. This life jacket fits kids in the 30-50 pound range with a chest size range of 20-25”.
It comes in a few bright, fun colors that kids will love – and you’ll love the very affordable price tag.
- Affordable price
- Adjustable chest straps plus leg straps
- Fun, bright color options
- Might not work kids with shorter torsos
5. Stearns Youth Classic Series Nylon Life Jacket
When you think of life jackets, this is probably the type of life jacket that comes to mind. This classic three buckle design is best for slightly older kids, those weighing 50-90 pounds.
The straps are adjustable and fit a chest size range of 26-29 inches. The Stearns Life Jacket is available in three colors: traditional red, blue and yellow and is U.S Coast Guard approved.
Note that this jacket does not have a leg strap so it may have a tendency to ride up. And for younger kids, it may feel a bit bulky and can ride up when in the water. For the occasional boating trip, this jacket will do the trick.
- Classic adjustable three buckle design
- Affordable price
- Simple, durable construction
- USCG approved
- A little bulkier than some of the other vests on the list
6. O’Neill Youth Reactor USCG Life Vest
The O’Neill Youth Reactor USCG Life Vest is for the older kids who are planning on doing some serious water activities including waterskiing, tubing and yes, even swimming. The heavy-duty front zipper creates a snug, secure fit while the slim design allows kids to move freely and be comfortable wearing it.
This vest is for kids 50-90 pounds and the two straps with buckles on the front are adjustable. The mesh material on the vest allows water to drain quickly so kids won’t be weighed down.
This vest is black with the choice of 4 color combo accents: Blue/Green, Pink/Gray, Pink/Turquoise and Red/Gray. And while this is the most expensive pick on our list, its lightweight and snug fit justify the higher price tag.
- Great for water sports
- Front zipper gives a secure fit
- Slim design allows for better mobility
- Sheds water quickly
- Sizing runs small
7. Sea Squirts SwimWays Fin Friends Life Jacket
Cue the Jaws theme.
Kids will love that located on the back of this life jacket is a shark fin – and you’ll love that kids will want to wear their life jacket with no complaints.
This one is for kids 30-50 pounds. It has adjustable chest straps as well as an adjustable crotch strap. The fin on the back is flexible and the vest is Type III, USCG approved.
The inner lining fabric proved to be comfortable and durable and luckily for you, the price is just right for all budgets.
- The flexible fin on the back makes this vest fun to wear
- Type III U.S. Coastal Guard approved
- Adjustable chest straps plus crotch strap
- Durable but comfortable material
- The fin was uncomfortable when using the vest while sitting in a seat with a back or going down a slide
8. Stearns Puddle Jumper
Yes, we know this isn’t a true life jacket but it is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Type V/III life jacket. It’s great for little swimmers and comes in a variety of fun designs.
The Stearns Puddle Jumper is for kids 30-50 pounds and has an adjustable buckle on the back. The Crosstech flotation foam is lightweight and keeps kids afloat when learning to swim. This life jacket can be used for boating, too!
Kids will love the aquatic designs like the whale, starfish, and octopus or even the non-aquatic design options like silly faces. And if you’re looking for life jackets for multiple kids, this is a great option because of the low price.
- Affordable price
- Plenty of fun designs to choose from
- Great traditional life jacket alternative
- Approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a life jacket
- Great for swimming
- Armholes are a little small. Maybe be tight on arms
9. AIRHEAD Wicked Kwik-Dry Neolite Vest
The AIRHEAD Wicked Kwik-Dry Neolite Vest not only has a “wicked” design, but comes in three sizes: infant, children’s, and youth. As the name suggests, the Kwik-Dry Neolite material it’s made of is quick-drying.
This Type III vest has both a zippered closure and two chest straps. There is also a crotch strap to keep kids extra secure, along with a grab handle, which can be used for hanging it to dry. But luckily, drying the vest won’t take long.
The PVC foam is lightweight and durable and the vest design allows for a good range of mobility, making it great for water sports.
- Lightweight and durable
- Zipper front closure plus chest straps and a crotch strap
- Kwik-Dry Neolite Fabric dries quickly
- Available in three sizes
- The Infant size was a little big for some babies
10. TYR Kids Life Vest
Simple design, durable material, and a low price. What else could you ask for? This vest is great for beginner swimmers and keeps them secure and afloat.
Not only does it have two chest straps and a zippered front but it also has two adjustable straps that go between the legs to keep the vest securely on. This U.S. Coast Guard approved life vest won’t get in the way of kids swimming since it isn’t too bulky.
The TYR Kids Life Vest is available in blue and pink and is suitable for kids 30-50 pounds.
- Low price
- Great for swimming
- Two under straps to keep kids extra secure
- Safety handle on top
- A little tricky two adjust the two under straps
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What’s the difference between a swim vest and life jacket?
A: The biggest difference is that a life jacket is a personal flotation device while a swim vest is not. Swim vests are not approved by the U.S. Coast Guard because they may not keep a child’s head above water. Swim vests should be used to help kids swim but do not rely on them to keep a child fully afloat.
Q: Can babies wear life jackets?
A: Absolutely. And they should! There are plenty of life jackets that come in infant/toddler sizing and will fit children under 30 pounds. Babies, like children and adults, need to wear life vests when boating.
Q: How do I know if a life jacket is fitting correctly?
A: First, always refer to the manufacturer’s sizing chart. In general, life jackets go by weight ranges as well as chest size.
Once you have determined the size, be sure to adjust the straps so that the life jacket is snug. The life jacket should not be too loose. To see if it is the appropriate fit, lift the vest up by the shoulders while the child is wearing it. If the vest goes up and touches their chin then it is too loose.
Q: My child hates wearing a life jacket! What do I do?
A: Tears, screaming, squirming… does that sound familiar? No matter how lightweight or comfortable a life jacket might be, we know some kids will just refuse to wear them.
Here are some tips to make getting a life jacket on a little easier:
- Practice, practice, practice. Don’t wait until you’re about to get on the boat to try on a life jacket for the first time. Be sure to have them wear one a few times before the planned activity.
- Use rewards. While kids are “practicing” wearing a life jacket, reward them for having it on. Something small for every 5, 10 or 15 minutes they wear it is a great motivator to get them to keep it on.
- Make it a game. See who can wear the life jacket the longest. That might require some participation (yes, we are talking to you, mom and dad!), but appealing to their competitive side might get them to wear it without any complaints.
- Set an example. Make sure that you always wear a life jacket, too. Explain to them the importance of wearing a life jacket.
Now you know everything there is to know about life jackets, including the types of life jackets, how to get a secure fit and of course, our favorites. We know that no matter which life jacket you pick from this list, it will help keep kids safe while they are having fun in and on the water!
Our top choice for life jackets for toddlers and babies is hands down the Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket. For older kids, we love the O’Neill Child Superlite USCG Life Jacket. Both are U.S. Coast Guard approved, lightweight, durable and fit most budgets.
We hope you enjoyed our article covering the best life jackets for kids!