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Best Life Jackets for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers

Updated March 2017

A follow-up to Part 4: Best Insect Repellent for Kids

Summer is here, friends! Hopefully you’ll take a well-deserved vacation, or at least hit the pool.

Photo courtesy of Jill Topp

Just chillin’ in the pool!

Life Jacket Basics

Whether you’re boating or just playing around at the pool, life jackets (also called PFDs – personal flotation devices) give parents an extra layer of protection against accidental drowning, which is the 2nd leading cause of death in children under 14.*It goes without saying that your little one should always be under close supervision, even with a life jacket.

Your garden-variety life jacket for an infant is a Type II PFD, which is for “near shore” rescue (as opposed to Type I, which is for rough, offshore conditions, and a longer rescue wait time). Type II jackets have head and neck support, which will typically upright an unconscious person – or a young child with poor body control – in the water. Thus, these are preferred for infants and young toddlers.

The big downside to Type II vests is that they are very bulky and restrictive – especially around the neck – and most kids initially resist when donning it for the first time. Not to worry though; with enough repetition, they’ll get used to it over time.

Photo courtesy of Jill Topp

Resistance 😉 Photo courtesy of Jill Topp

Completing the set, a Type III device is a “flotation aid” that can be used for preschoolers who have more body control and some swimming skills, with the caveat that they will not automatically turn a child upright in the water when immersed.

Most life jackets for children 30+ lbs are Type III devices. When boating, especially in rough seas, I’d always opt for a Type II device no matter how good of a swimmer your child is.

We’ll discuss both types below.


Generally speaking, children under 13 are required to wear a life jacket while a vessel is underway, unless they are below deck or in an enclosed cabin. *Laws vary by state.

It’s generally not advised to take babies on boats, although many find this to be overly conservative (especially for families who LIVE on boats). Per the US Coast Guard, “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.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer O’Donnell

Photo courtesy of Jennifer O’Donnell

Bottom line: Test your baby’s life jacket beforehand in a pool or another controlled environment to make sure it works as intended.

Best Life Jackets

All of the following life jackets are Coast Guard approved and may be used while boating. Always be sure to check the label on your child’s life vest to see which activities it’s approved for.

Make sure your child’s life jacket fits properly by having him/her make a “touchdown” signal by raising both arms straight up. If the life jacket hits a child’s chin or ears, it may be too big or the straps may be too loose.

Photo courtesy of Lesly Simmons

Photo courtesy of Lesly Simmons

Infant/Toddler Life Vests – up to 30 lbs (which is up to 2 or 3 years old)

In truth, most infants and young toddlers are not thrilled about wearing a life vest. They are constricting and tend to crowd their neck and head, especially for very young babies (3 months and under).

$ – Overton’s Infant Vest ~ $19 – Editor’s Choice

This highly-rated Type II infant vest was specially designed for the needs of infants and young toddlers. The tapered front piece goes through the legs and connects to the back for a snug fit that won’t ride up. The oversized collar provides excellent head support in the water and the grab strap makes for easy recovery. *Like the others, this one is big for babies under 3 months.


Stearns Infant Classic Life Vest ~ $18 – $20

  • Amazon Prime option

Also available at Walmart.

Stearns infant classic life vest

Stearns infant classic life vest

Stearns jacket in blue

Stearns jacket in blue

This basic Type II vest also has all the necessary safety features, including a neck pad and a crotch strap to keep it from riding up. It’s also made of durable nylon and has a rescue handle for parents to easily lift their child from the water. Many agree that this vest is not the most comfortable, but overall, it’s a good quality infant/toddler vest and modestly priced to boot. We keep a couple of these on our boat in case we have younger guests aboard.

$$ ~O’Neill Kids Infant Superlite USCG Vest ~ $29

*Zappos Quick Shipping

This is a lightweight version of their popular and more expensive Wake Waterski Vest. It contains closed cell PVC marine foam for a slimmer, lightweight design. The larger neck opening gives wee ones a little more wiggle room (but not much more!). It’s also shorter than the others, which is neither here nor there.

O’Neill is a trusted name in the surfing industry, so you can expect this one to hold up longer than others. This would be my pick for frequent swimmers and boaters.


Child Life Jackets: for children 30-50 lbs

$ ~ Stearns Kids Puddle Jumper Basic Life Jacket ~ $20 – Editor’s Choice

~ Also available at Walmart and Target.

The ever-popular Stearns Puddle Jumper is, in fact, Coast Guard approved as a learn-to-swim aid for pools, lakes, beaches and also approved for boating. This jacket is great for 3 to 6-year-olds who can’t swim very well, although some readers noted that their 2-year-olds fit in it as well (Alice [was] 2.5 and LOVED it). For those taking multiple children to the pool and such, this is a must-have. *Not for infants or young toddlers who can’t keep themselves upright in the water!!

Children get more freedom of movement with this device because there’s nothing constrictive around their head and neck; parents like it because it keeps their child upright in the water, rather than lying on their back.


$ ~ Stearns Child’s Classic Series Vest — or — Overton’s Children’s Nylon Vest

Also available at Sears. For children 30-50 lbs

Stearns Child Classic Boating vest

Tied for second place, both the Stearns Child’s Classic Series Vest and Overton’s Children’s Nylon Vest are decently priced and Coast Guard approved Type III PFDs, which means they’re fine for boating, but don’t support the neck in the back like a Type II device. These are less constrictive for older kiddos who can right themselves in the water.

The Stearns Child Classic Series Vest is ~$20 on Amazon — runs small!! 

$ ~ Overton’s Children’s Nylon Vest  ~ $20 

Overton's Children's Nylon Vest

Overton’s Children’s Nylon Vest

This basic nylon vest is another great value from Overton’s.


“That orange life vest you used to wear at camp” ~ $9

Comfortable and stylish it is not, but this Type II jacket *should* upright a child who has fallen into the water, unlike its Type III counterparts. On the bright side, it’s cheap and easy to stack! This is the one to get when you need to buy in bulk.


Overtons Type II Life Jacket


Finally, thanks to all those who weighed in on life jackets on Facebook!

Photo courtesy of Kristina Poehls

Photo courtesy of Kristina Poehls

Happy Summer!

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This article has 17 comments

  1. Bridgette Gallagher
    Sunday 22 June 2014, 11:46 am | Reply

    I HIGHLY recommend not buying a type II life jacket for infants online UNLESS you have visited a local West Marine or other boating store to try them on. Different jackets will fit different kids. Hubby and I did a ton of research online, decided on the best jacket, bought it on amazon and when we got it – it just didn’t fit our dd right. She looked more squished than the kid in the blue jacket pictured above. We had to return it. We went to west marine and tried a few on our daughter and found one that fit right.

  2. Thank you for this article. May I also note: Please don’t buy life jackets at garage sales. Just like car seats, they get outdated and can wear out. The plastic buckles can get brittle, the foam inside could be waterlogged. Is $30-$50 really too much to spend on a life jacket for your child’s safety? I mean, come on, it’s called a “life” – jacket for a reason. 🙂

  3. I agree with all of Lucie’s recommendations. The most important aspect of purchasing a lifejacket is checking to make sure it is US Coast Guard approved.
    I manage many commercial swimming pools where the lifeguard checks to ensure the jacket is USCG approved. Unfortunately, many parents mistakenly purchase jackets that are not approved. If it is happening at pools, I’m sure it is happening on boats.
    The CDC and most professional water safety associations only recommend USCG approved lifejackets.

  4. […] tubes do NOT protect against drowning. They are created as water toys, not life-saving devices. Life jackets should be designated as U.S. Coast […]

  5. […] do NOT protect against drowning. They are created as water toys, not life-saving devices. Any life jackets you use should be designated as U.S. Coast […]

  6. As a former swimming instructor with many years of experience, I can say that life jackets are important for boating and open water. I see people using life jackets at the pool all the time, and they use them as babysitters. A life jacket can’t prevent a mean kid from dunking yours, water wings (which I NEVER recommend) can pop a hole, and all kinds of unpredictable things can happen. Sign your kids up for lessons so that they don’t have to rely on a PFD at the pool. Pay attention to what they learn in lessons and have them practice (without the PFD!). And please, please watch your kids. Drowning is scary and happens in an instant.

  7. Might I add, I recommend the Speedo life jacket for infants up to 30 lbs? My son is 8.5 months and about 19-20 lbs, and the infant size speedo was a good fit for him. Its straps are nice and adjustable, including two crotch straps for a little less crotch-crushing. I like that it is neoprene, so it’s comfortable and not scratchy. It also has the rear head/neck piece and a grab strap, and is USCG approved. He didn’t mind it once he was used to the idea. We have now tried it in a river and a pool, and will be using it on a boat / at a lake later this summer. $30 at Target!
    Here’s the link, though I think the “girls” one is hideous.
    Not sure if this will work, but here’s a link for a pic of my little guy in his life vest. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10100260201282027&l=563809e0af

  8. […] life jacket, then obviously it can’t help them. In cases like this encourage parents to think creatively when it comes to this issue. When teaching a water exploration lesson to toddlers last week, I noticed that a parent brought in a flotation device that had a cartoon character on it and the child was excited to wear it in the water. My initial thought was that this was going to be another unapproved toy. To my surprise the USCG stamp of approval was on the device. As an example, these images of a Puddle Jumper alongside this article show something both “fun” and USCG approved – and sometimes something as simple as the right color or fun cartoon character can make a child interested in wearing the life jacket. I encourage parents to put the time and effort into finding a device that is both approved by the USCG and that your child will want to wear, because they do exist. […]

  9. I would strongly recommend taking a look at the Salus Marine Bijoux life jacket.

    Salus is a Canadian company and all of their life jackets are certified by the Canadian Coast Guard. They are accepted by the USCG to satisfy the life preserver requirement for each person aboard.

    The main difference is this – the minimum size the USCG will certify is 30lbs. The Salus Marine is certified by the CCG for 9-25lbs. We’ve used it for both our son and then our daughter.

    Their jackets are comfortable and nicely proportioned for small kids. We bought the next size up for my son and will do it again when he needs it!

  10. […] bulky and do barely interfere with motion while boating. Lucie’s List has a recently updated blog post with reviews of currently available PFDs for toddlers. Never restrain your child during a water […]

  11. […] Collins, Lucie’s List a survival guide for new moms, Best Life Jackets for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool…, June 18, […]

  12. Different jackets will fit different kids. Hubby and I did a ton of research online, decided on the best jacket, bought it on amazon and when we got it – it just didn’t fit our dd right. She looked more squished than the kid in the blue jacket pictured above. We had to return it. We went to west marine and tried a few on our daughter and found one that fit right.
    Thanks for that!

  13. […] Best Life Jackets for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers […]

  14. I also agree with some comment above that tell to buy infant life jacket in store near yor place, because you have to fit it with your child

  15. […] your little ones want to swim, don’t forget to bring a Coast Guard approved life vest or Puddle Jumper and stay within an arm’s length of any child under the age of […]

  16. […] PFD’s that are designed for adult usage are generally made with an adjustable “one size fits all” concept. But when selecting the best PFD for children in the middle of their growth cycle, it can get a little more complicated—especially as they physically mature, or if they happen to be toddlers. […]

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