Kids life jackets, puddle jumpers, and swim vests will make a day in the water safer for your little one. That said, one of the most ironic aspects of motherhood is the straight-up marathon you have to run every damn day to get your kid to do what is absolutely necessary to keep them alive—like wearing a life jacket. “If you want to go in the lake, you have to wear sunscreen — and a life jacket,” said the insanely overtired mother to her ungrateful and unwilling-to-listen 6-year-old eyeing the new pool. Sound familiar?
Life Jackets vs. Puddle Jumpers vs. Swim Vests
But first, we want to clarify: While a life jacket or life vest may be a blanket term for wearable floating devices, there is a big difference between life jackets, puddle jumpers, and swim vests.
Life jackets: When it comes to life jackets, it’s in the name — these are specifically designed to save lives. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4, and the second most common in kids under 5 — and it can occur with less than an inch of water, notes Alison Mitzner, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City. “It is so important that children wear a life jacket while in or near water, including boating, swimming, at a beach, on a dock, rafting, tubing or near lakes, rivers or oceans etc.,” she says. “It is a simple way to stay safe.”
Even if you’ve stocked up on a boatload of pool floaties, water wings, blow-ups, and plastic rings, they shouldn’t take the place of life jackets, which are essential for every child who will be exposed to a body of water. “They only work when worn and of course they never replace adult supervision,” adds Dr. Mitzner. “And we, as our kids biggest role models, should wear one too for our own safety and also to set the example for our children even early on to learn the importance of a life jacket and water safety.” For optimum safety, you’ll want to get a life jacket that’s specifically Coast Guard-approved.
Puddle jumpers: These are the floaties that go around a child’s waist and arms. They can also be Coast Guard-approved for safety. However, there is some controversy over whether puddle jumpers are good or bad because the posture they hold kids in is not conducive to learning how to swim. In other words, they will keep your tot afloat, but if you’re trying to teach them to swim, a swim vest is a much better option.
Swim vests: Specifically designed to give kiddos a buoyant boost as they learn to swim, these are great tools for younger children as they begin to doggy paddle with close adult supervision. These aren’t too bulky or cumbersome which allows your kid can move in the water, and some of the best options have removable floats that you can adjust as your child becomes a stronger swimmer. That said, these are not meant to take the place of life jackets, as they are not designed to be life-saving devices.
How Should You Size A Life Jacket For A Child?
A properly fitted life jacket is key. It should fit snugly when fastened and be free of tears, rips or signs of wear, explains Jarret Patton, M.D., a pediatrician in eastern Pennsylvania. “A life jacket that is too small may not provide enough buoyancy and one that is too big may allow for the child to slip out of it,” he says. “A quick test you can do to see if it is the right fit is to gently pull up on the vest while your child’s arms are up in the air. If the vest can be pulled above their ears, it is likely too big.”
Ready to start shopping for that life jacket, puddle jumper, or swim vest so you can have some peace of mind? Check out our mom-approved options below.
Best Kids Puddle Jumpers
If you are really having a tough time convincing your kid to wear a full blown life vest, a puddle jumper is a great alternative. They are basically arm floaties that pass the safety test and are one of the most popular swim helpers mainly because kids don’t mind wearing them and they are actually safe, especially the Stearns Original Puddle Jumper, which has been safety tested and is U.S. Coast Guard-approved as a Type V/III personal floatation device. This one is designed for children weighing 30 to 50 lbs, meeting strict requirements for use on boats, in public pools and at water parks. The fabric is made out of a woven polyester that is gentle against your child’s sensitive skin with less chafing. The real selling point for your kid, of course, is definitely going to be the fact that he or she can choose from one of 15 different prints and designs. Lobster, crab, pineapple, and of course mermaid, amongst them.
If your child is anywhere between the ages 1 and 4, they’ll appreciate the fun, colorful prints of these puddle jumpers. Made from a durable material with heavy stitching so you don’t have to worry about ripping, they’re great for kids weighing between 25 and 45 lbs, which is pretty comparable to other puddle jumpers that are similar in structure. It is verified by European Standards (ENs) as a buoyant aid for swimming instruction. In addition to the standard floaty arms, this life vest has an extra side buckle for even more security. Blue Mars also offers a 12-month guarantee should you experience any issues with the vest as well as a customer service department that actually responds within a 24-hour timeframe (imagine that!). One reviewer had this to say: “Great design! Our granddaughter seems very comfortable and confident in the pool. We love the way this design keeps the baby’s upper body so well positioned.”
Best Life Jackets For Kids (Coast Guard-Approved)
If you don’t want to mess around when it comes to knowing that your child is safe in the water (along with a caregiver’s close supervision), you can feel rest assured when she’s donning the Blue Rave Sports Universal Nylon Child Life Jacket. The floatation device is designed for children weighing anywhere between 30 lbs and 50 lbs, usually lasting all the way through year 7 for most children. It is US Coast Guard-approved and made with a soft foam core and warped in adorable nylon that doesn’t rub up against your child’s skin and cause irritation or chafing. There are three sure-lock buckles as well as a leg loop strap that ensure a secure fit. One reviewer noted that her four year old liked the jacket but also, from a safety perspective, she could feel confident that it does a great job of keeping him safe while he is in the water.
“Infant life jackets are especially important as they provide added support to the head since most infants and toddlers are top heavy,” says Jesus Alderete, Senior Program Coordinator of Injury Prevention at Children’s Health in Dallas, Texas. When shopping for an infant life jacket, as well as for any age, it is important to always check that the label confirms that it is US Coast Guard-approved like this one by Stearns. It has a rescue handle that gives Mom and Dad a firm grip on a fidgety baby, whether you are immersed in the water or hanging out on a boat. It also has an adjustable chest belt, zipper and adjustable leg strap that fits your little one securely. Durable nylon and PE floatation foam keep your child above water. It is suitable for infants as well as toddlers under 30 pounds, so it will likely last you two summers!
Don’t get fooled by this life vest’s old-school look. It actually has a perk that the kids might appreciate: a more open back so that she feels less trapped while wearing it. It is still US Coast Guard-approved for children weighing between 30 and 50 lbs with a few different functionalities than its competitors. For starters, this life vest has a quick release buckle in the front that crosses over the zipper area for added security. Unlike most child or youth life vests, this one has padded head support that’s similar to what you’d find on an infant life vest. This adds even more foam for increased buoyancy and helps your child naturally float in a face-up position. Last, but not least, the Stohlquist Kids Life Jacket has a large grab handle that gives parents easier access whether they’re in the water with their child or helping them out of the water.
Passing the highest US Coast Guard approval for both standards and testing, this life jacket offers everything a concerned parent is looking for in a floatation device that will protect their child. It is approved for children between 30 and 50 lbs, although the brand recommends sizing up as soon as your child is over 45 lb and sizing down if your child is on the cusp of 25 lb to be extra safe. It is made out of a durable nylon material with thick EPE floatation foam to keep your child’s head well above water. It has three adjustable straps that fit comfortably so your child is free to move around in the water. In the last year alone, the brand lengthened the chest strap to better fit the maximum size. Whether you are boating or swimming, this is a great life jacket to purchase for your child.
If you are looking for a life jacket with all the basics that meets kid approval, this is an excellent choice. Kids love the adorable seahorse design and overall look of this US Coast Guard-approved life vest, and you can feel rest assured that it is doing its job and protecting your child while they play in the water. It has three separate and adjustable straps—two around the chest region and one around the crotch for extra security. A zip closure provides an even more secure fit that is still comfortable. It is designed for children 30 to 50 lbs and is constructed out of hydropene material with PE floatation foam. Whether you are enjoying a family vacation by the beach or the ocean, or escaping the July heat in your neighbor’s pool, you will be glad you have this life vest along for the ride.
Best Kids Swim Vests
If you can’t tell by the sweet little boy smiling in this product photo, kids totally approve of this life jacket. It is made from a high-quality nylon material that is environmentally-friendly, soft against your child’s skin and flexible so he can move around comfortably. It also has a high buoyancy and UV protection to keep those harmful UV rays away (even though you are already lathering your kiddo with tons of sunscreen). It has three safety buckles that prevent the life jacket from riding up or loosening as a result of water impact. Unlike many of its competitors, this swim vest fits a wide range of age groups—specifically children weighing 22 to 66 lbs so long as they are between 37 to 59 inches in height. You can purchase this life jacket in five colors— black, ocean blue, navy, orange or red— in either small, medium or large.
This smart swim vest was specifically designed to evolve with little ones as they navigate their way through the water. Made with soft, flexible neoprene, it fits snugly without excess bulk and also keeps kiddos warm and protected from the sun (it has UPF 50+). But here’s the coolest part: This vest has 8 independent removable floats so you can adjust the buoyancy as they become stronger at swimming. It’s available in sizes 1-3 years and 3-6 years and colors grey and aqua.
Because you’re never done buying sh*t for your kid, check out our complete mom-approved summer kids gear checklist.