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Summer activities always seem to revolve around water — from the beach to pools to waterparks. There’s no sugarcoating it: Drowning is the top cause of injury deaths in children 1 to 4 years old according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Kids are drawn to the water, making it crucial to choose one of the best life jackets for toddlers. Scary Mommy reached out to Gerry Dworkin, an aquatics safety and water rescue technical consultant to learn what to look for when shopping for kids’ life vests.
Gerry Dworkin is technical consultant for aquatics safety and water rescue at Lifesaving Resources LLC. in Kennebunkport, Maine. Lifesaving Resources develops and conducts water safety and rescue training programs throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dworkin has been a firefighter and EMT for over 35 years, and is currently with the Kennebunkport Fire Department. He previously served on the board of directors for the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and is a member of the National Water Safety Congress and the United States Lifesaving Association.
What To Consider When Shopping For The Best Life Jackets For Toddlers
Understanding Life Jacket Labels
The Coast Guard started changing life jacket labeling in 2014, and the Type I, II, III, V labeling is now a thing of the past. That said, some companies still advertise by type. For easy shopping, I’ve noted for each pick below whether the vest is designed to flip the wearer face up in the water, or not.
Life vests today come with an inside label that lists recommended weight range and chest measurements and has a numbered swimming figure indicating how buoyant the jacket is. (The higher the number, the more float power.) A curved arrow indicates if the jacket is or is not likely to turn over an unconscious person (or child with no swimming skills) onto their back.
Making Sure A Toddler’s Life Jacket Fits
Under the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) current classifications, the average 1 year old would fit an infant-sized jacket (up to 33 pounds.) The average 2 year old would likely still fit in an infant size, although children at the higher end may fit a child size (33-55 pounds.) Smaller 3 year olds will still fit in child-sized jackets, but once over 55 pounds they should be moved up to youth size. Body type can influence a jacket’s fit, so it’s important to ensure the jacket is right for your kiddo.
“The PFD (Personal Flotation Device) should be appropriately sized and the label specifies that size/weight range of the child. All straps and zippers need to be secured.” says Dworkin. He adds, “When lifting the child up by the handle or shoulders of the PFD, the child should stay secure within the PFD.”
The USCG recommends checking the fit of your child’s (and your own!) lifejacket. After a fit test, the Coast Guard recommends testing the jacket in a safe environment like a pool or other calm, shallow water.
Staying Safe By The Water
Dworkin recommends parents wear a life jacket for their own safety and because children mimic their parents. “You wouldn’t drive your vehicle without buckling the seat belts. [...] Why would you go out in a boat without donning a life jacket and being sure your children are wearing one as well?” he said.
Life jackets should be part of a multilayered approach to water safety that includes sustained adult supervision, knowing CPR, and having children take water safety or swim lessons starting at 1 year old, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you have a pool, consider fencing and using pool alarms.
Now it’s time to shop. Know that all of our choices below are USCG-approved and highly rated by Amazon reviewers.
1. The Best Life Jacket For Smaller Tots That Can’t Swim Yet
Perfect for petite water-goers, this infant life jacket covers kids under 30 pounds. Reviewers say the oversize head flotation pad does an excellent job of keeping kids’ faces out of the water without pinching sensitive necks. This jacket is designed to flip kids face up in the water, so it’s a great pick for kids who can’t swim or need protection by the water. Just note that it’s not great for teaching little ones to swim because it’s designed to keep flipping them to their back. Many reviewers raved that their tots didn’t mind wearing this jacket.
Helpful Review: “I am impressed with how well designed this life jacket is. It fits her like a glove with room to grow. My 5 month old is indepemdant yet safe in water (we stay within arms reach). This item was used the first time we introduced her to water. She has evolved so much since... This is the kind of investment that makes it easy and safe for both parent and baby. [...]”
Recommended Weight Range: 30 lbs and under | Material: Hydroprene, Nylon, and Crosstech Flotation Foam | Colors: Green Fish (shown), Blue/Orange, Pink/Purple, Pink Fish
2. The Fan-Favorite Life Vest For Bigger Toddlers & Older Kids
Boasting an impressive 4.6-star rating after 4,000+ reviews, this is a great life jacket for kids over 30 pounds who are already active in the water. The Stohlquist Fit Youth life jacket was designed with a streamlined back that allows kids to sit back comfortably in chairs and open sides for maximum mobility. The three-buckle front offers one more adjustment than similar models, making it easier to adjust for children with a narrower torso. The bright colors offer high visibility and the handle itself is a bright yellow that should be easy to spot in the water. If your kid ends up loving this vest, they have larger models that should take them all the way through 125 pounds! Please note, this jacket is not designed to turn a child face up in the water.
Helpful Review: “VERY PLEASED with this product. [...] It has a great v-neck cut (no complaints at all!!), straps have room to grow, and he is safe and happy wearing it. Tested it out on Friday - success! He jumped deep in the lake and popped right back up. Swam with no fussy complaints. If your child is sensitive to fabrics and seams and cut...this may be the life jacket for you.”
Recommended Weight Range: Small (30-50 lbs), Medium (50 - 90 lbs), Large (75-125 lbs) | Material: Polyethylene Foam, Nylon | Colors: Green/Gray (shown), Black/Gray, Blue/Black, Green/Black, Yellow/Blue, Red/Gray
3. A Non-Bulky Life Jacket That Allows For Plenty Of Movement
This is a great pick for little ones who will be active while wearing the jacket or who run hot. The open sides, V-neck design, and streamlined back of this jacket offer a full range of motion, prevent chafing, and make sitting more comfortable. Many parents said the double-collared padding made a great “pillow” for naps at sea. The handle at the top allows you to easily grab a child in an emergency (or the jacket on your way out the door.) Adjustable straps at the front, side and crotch let you get the perfect fit. Note: unlike the smaller size featured, the large 30-50 pound size is not designed to turn a child face up in the water.
Helpful Review: “My husband and I kayak so I bought this for our daughter. She is in Infant Swim Rescue classes and the last week of lessons, we tested this in the pool. It flipped her right side up easily and the head support made it easier for her to float. Puts me at ease if she was unconscious, the life vest would help her. As an ER RN, I have performed CPR on drowning victims so I highly recommend any safety measures from swim lessons to this vest!”
Sizes: Small (8 - 30 lbs), Large (30 - 50 lbs) | Material: Polyethylene Foam, PVC, and Nylon | Colors: Blue/Green (shown), Aqua/Pink, Orange/Yellow
4. An Affordable Pick Reviewers Say Saved The Day
This durable, Coast-Guard-approved life jacket is a bargain that doesn’t skimp on protection. Designed for little ones under 30 pounds, multiple reviewers said this jacket came to the rescue when their toddler unexpectedly ended up in the water. One reviewer with 14-month-old twins said the jacket “immediately turn[s] them onto their backs with the head support. I even tried tilting them in different ways, and same result every time.” It has adjustable straps at the chest and crotch, as well as a large handle for quickly grabbing kids in the water. The jacket has low-cut arm holes, offering the security of a fully closed vest and the comfort of a more open-sided model. While it has enough padding for kids who can’t swim, reviewers said their kids didn’t mind wearing it and many napped in it.
Helpful Review: “We bought this for a six-month old so we could go out on the lake with him. We were canoeing when a sudden storm came up with such strong winds that we capsized. I think the best praise a life-vest can get is that it worked when put to the test. Of course there was a lot of crying, but the baby floated with his head above water. The grab pull at the top was useful as he was hauled into another boat. I am very thankful he was wearing it!”
Recommended Weight Range: 30 lbs and under | Material: Nylon Shell, PE Foam | Colors: Blue (shown), Red
5. An Easy-To-Spot Neoprene Life Jacket That Dries Fast
Breathable, lightweight, and flexible, this life jacket was made for active water play. Reviewers love how comfortable and non-bulky this jacket is. The low but closed sides offer a secure fit and freedom of movement. The jacket has a large, bright yellow rescue handle for emergencies and the jacket itself is easy to spot in the water. The Kwik-Dry Neolite material holds in warmth on cool and windy days but dries quickly. The infant size has a generous head flotation pad to flip faces up and keep little mouths and noses out of the water.
Helpful Review: “I've been searching for a good life jacket since my daughter was born 4 years ago. My son is 13 months and 21 lbs and we have three other life jackets. He is so uncomfortable in all of them so I went on a hunt. Even though this one was a bit more money than the others, it is SO worth it. He was so comfortable when sitting, he could crawl, stand up and nap comfortably. Highly recommend this one!”
Recommended Weight Range: Infant (15 - 30 pounds), Child (30 - 50 pounds) | Material: Neolite shell, Flex Foam | Colors: Multicolor (shown)
6. A Colorful Pick With Plenty Of Adjustable Straps For Finding The Best Fit
Reviewers love how supportive this zip-up life jacket is, thanks to the dual straps across the chest that can be adjusted for a comfortably snug fit. The crotch strap is also adjustable so you can prevent it from riding up uncomfortably. The bright colors make it easy to spot your toddler in the water (or on the shore.) The headrest padding has a channel down the center where the head nestles, which kids find especially comfortable when it’s time for a shore-side siesta. In the water, the headrest works to flip and keep heads afloat.
Helpful Review: “Fits my 22 pound, 33 inch, 18 month old perfectly. Love the added head float. Also the bright colors and the handle strap at the head are a nice touch. Fortunately [I] have not had to pull him out of the water, but good to see that there is something to easily grab a hold of if needed. I was a coast guard boarding officer and have been on boats all my life. This is a very well made vest.”
Recommended Weight Range: 30 lbs and under | Material: Nylon, PVC Marine Foam | Colors: Pink/White (shown), Yellow/Pacific, Neon Yellow/Neon Orange, Lime/Graphite, Berry/Graphite
7. The Best Life Jacket For Learning To Swim
This model is more of a puddle jumper than a life jacket, but it’s worth considering if you’ll be teaching your toddler to swim this summer. Unlike arm floats that can slip off in the water, this model goes around your child’s waist with an adjustable strap that buckles in the back so they can’t easily undo it themselves. Reviewers say the fun print and buoyancy helped their little ones learn to swim and focus on using their legs without worrying about sinking. The antimicrobial fabric’s bright colors offer high visibility in a pool. Please note, this jacket is not designed to turn a child face up in the water, it’s intended for use with an adult’s help.
Helpful Review: “Loved this swimmy! My daughter is 2 1/2 and a fish. She loves to swim but still needs help so we got her this. She's tall but skinny for her age and I feel this fits her perfectly when pulling the strap snug. Of course she only wears it while supervised. I recommend this to other parents :)”
Recommended Weight Range: 30-50 lbs. | Material: Plastic | Colors: Chase from Paw Patrol (shown), Minnie Mouse, Skye