How to Find a Safe & Reliable Life Jacket for Your Infant or Toddler (2018 Reviews)

What’s more fun to a child than playing on or in the water? But at the same time, what’s more terrifying to a parent?

We all know that drowning is a very real danger to children, but we also want our kids to enjoy all the fun water activities available to them. The best way to ensure their safety is by having them wear a life jacket.

Choosing a life jacket can be tricky, though. They’re bulky. They can be uncomfortable. Kids refuse to wear them.

Here’s what you need to know about buying a life jacket for your kids – along with recommendations for the best, most comfortable ones that we’ve found.

Our Top 5 Picks
ProductBest ForOur Rating
1. Stearns Infant HydroThe Pool5
2. Stohlquist UnisexHead Support4.6
3. O’Neill USCGThe Ocean4.3
4. Airhead InfantBoating4
5. Stearns Puddle JumperLearning to Swim3.75
*All links above will take you to the latest prices on Amazon or you can read our in-depth baby life jacket reviews below.

Why Does My Child Need a Life Jacket?

Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in the world. Drowning deaths are highest among children ages 1-4, followed by children ages 5-9 (source).

Combined with adequate adult supervision, wearing a life jacket while in or around the water is your child’s best protection against drowning.

Related Reading:
The Ultimate Guide to Swimming Safety For Kids

Even if your child knows how to swim, wearing a life jacket while in a pool or boat is a good idea. If a child experiences fatigue without you noticing, a life jacket can prevent them from slipping beneath the water.

And while boating, if an emergency were to happen and you or your child were to lose consciousness, the life jacket can keep them safely afloat – and even flip them face-up depending on the jacket’s design – until help arrives to pull them from the water.

In addition to providing life-saving protection to your child, it’s also the law.

Remember

The US Coast Guard requires that all children under the age of 13wear a life jacket if they are on a boat that is underway (source). Individual state requirements may be more stringent, so you may want to check on the law in your particular state. You can do that here.

Finally, life jackets allow your child to experience all the fun and excitement the water has to offer in a safe way and help them to develop water confidence.

As your child grows and becomes old enough to learn how to swim, you want them to be well-acquainted with water and to love it – not to be afraid of it. Wearing a life jacket in the early years will not only keep your child safe, but allow them to expand their horizons.

How Does a Life Jacket Protect My Child?

Life jackets protect their wearers in a number of ways:

  • Buoyancy: Life jackets allow the wearer to float in the water. They are filled with a very buoyant material (these days it’s usually foam) that can displace a large amount of water in relation to its size and weight (source).
  • Visibility: Depending on the color you choose, a life jacket can keep your child visible in the event of an emergency. The top colors to choose for visibility in the water include red, orange, and yellow (source). Stay away from blues, grays, and other dull colors.
  • Head Protection: Some models of life jackets are designed to flip your child on their back to keep their face above water. These are ideal for infants or potentially dangerous water sports that could result in the user becoming unconscious and unable to flip themselves.
  • Security: Unlike unapproved flotation devices, most children’s life jackets come with a crotch strap to ensure they do not slip off if a child falls in the water.

What Types of Life Jackets are Available?

There are many different ratings for life jackets.

They can be confusing, but here’s what you need to know (source):

  • Type I: These life jackets are intended for offshore ocean use, where the water has a tendency to be rough and unpredictable. They are very effective for flotation, but tend to be bulky and uncomfortable. It is difficult to find Type I life jackets for children.
  • Type II: When purchasing a life jacket for your child, this is the type that you are most likely to come across. Type II life jackets are designed for use in calmer waters and used when boating or fishing. They are less buoyant than Type I but also less bulky, making them more comfortable. They are not suitable for rough waters.
  • Type III: These life jackets are less buoyant than Type II jackets and most appropriate for well-supervised water activities where a rescue would be immediate. They do not flip the wearer on their back upon falling into the water. These are also widely available in children’s sizes.
  • Type IV: These are throwable devices (like life rings/life preservers) that are tossed into the water to a person in distress. They are not appropriate to rely on for children as a child would need to tread water and swim before being able to access the thrown device.
  • Type V: These are specialized life jackets that were designed for a very specific water use. If you are shopping for a life jacket for your child, you will not likely purchase a Type V.

What Should I Look for When Purchasing a Life Jacket?

When purchasing a life jacket, make sure you look for the following:

  • US Coast Guard Approval: On the inside of any life jacket you choose there should be an indicator that it is approved for use by the US Coast Guard, and the conditions for which it is approved (recreational watercraft, personal watercraft, commercial use, etc.).
  • Weight Restrictions: The life vest you choose should have the weight limits printed on the inside. Choose one that meets the current weight of your child. Do not be tempted to buy one designed for larger children with the expectation that your child will be able to use it for a longer period of time. Safety is paramount when choosing a life jacket, and the one you choose must meet the immediate needs of your child.
  • Color: If you are planning to use your child’s life jacket for boating or on the open water, visibility is critical for quick recovery in the event of an emergency. Choose brightly-colored jackets that will contrast with the blue or green of the water. Orange, yellow, and red are good choices. Avoid grays and blues.
  • Grab Strap: A grab strap is a good safety feature to have if you are planning to use the life jacket while boating. It provides a handle that you can grab and easily pull the child back into the boat if they fall into the water.
  • Security: The life jacket you choose should not slip off your child. Some life jackets ensure this by providing a crotch strap (a strap that runs between the legs so it cannot slip over your child’s head). If your life jacket does not have a strap you can test its security by having your child wear it and picking them up from the shoulders of the life jacket; if it does not come up above their ears it is sufficiently snug.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Life jackets are manufactured to keep your baby safe in the water, but they only work if they fit properly. “Infant” life jackets are rated for babies from 8-30 pounds, which is a huge size variance and it could be difficult to make a life jacket fit the smallest of babies.

While there is no law against taking babies on boats, if you’re planning on boating with your infant you should be aware of the US Coast Guard’s recommendations:

Note About Infants & Boats

“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.”

Babies vary widely in size, but some babies are well over a year before they top the 18-pound mark. If you plan on taking your small baby on a boat, make sure you test your life jacket per the Coast Guard recommendations, and exercise the utmost of caution.


The Best Baby Life Jackets of 2018

Now that you know the importance of a good life jacket, the different kinds, and exactly what to look for when buying one —

Here are our top 5 picks in 2018:

1. Stearns Infant Hydro PFD

You want your little one to feel comfortable in the water, but you also want them to be safe. Choose a Type II flotation device for use in or around the pool. Not only will it keep them afloat while they’re splashing around, but if they slip and fall in on accident, it will automatically turn your child face-up to prevent drowning.
Stearns (2000013890 Infant Hydro PFD, Gold

This life jacket has a back-zipper enclosure along with a neoprene body to keep it much more trim than your typical life jacket, making it perfect for splashing in the pool.

The neck flap is designed to keep your child’s head above water in the event they fall in, and dual crotch straps keep the jacket secure without giving them a wedgie.

This life jacket is bright yellow, so if you decide to go on a boat, visibility will be good in the event of emergency. And since it’s Type II Coast Guard approved, you’ll be legal.

PROS

  • This life jacket is brightly colored.
  • It is less bulky than other models.
  • It has a grab strap.
  • It will flip your baby on its back.

2. Airhead Nylon Infant Life Jacket

For boating, the US Coast Guard recommends a Type II life jacket for infants (source). However, finding one is easier said than done. Many aren’t manufactured for babies less than 30 pounds, and even when they are, it can be hard to find one that fits properly. When selecting the right life jacket for your small baby, make sure you’re paying extra-close attention to the weight limits on the label and test it out in a pool before taking your baby on a boat.
Airhead Infant Nylon Life Vest - Blue

This life jacket is rated for infants under 30 pounds, and comes with adjustable buckle straps so you can tighten it to make it snug.

It has a grab strap in the event you need to pull your child from the water quickly and easily, and the foam collar offers additional head and neck support for your baby – both in and out of the water.

When buying this model, there are options to purchase ones with cute cartoons and designs, but don’t be fooled – the yellow model is the best for visibility. Don’t let cuteness win over safety.

PROS

  • It has adjustable straps.
  • It is brightly colored.
  • It has a grab strap.

3. Stohlquist Unisex Infant Life Jacket

You know that your child shouldn’t inhale the water, and you only want the best protection for them. Choose a life jacket that has extra foam head support. Not only will it provide support to your baby, but it will also help to flip them on their back them once they’re in the water – so if the worst happens, they won’t be face-down and will be able to breathe safely.
Stohlquist Infant PFD 8-30 lbs, Yellow/Blue

This life jacket doesn’t have just one foam neck support – it’s got two.

Stohlquist improved upon the foam flap design by adding an additional foam pad for extra support for the smallest of babies.

It has both a zipper for ease and a buckle with adjustable strap for added security, along with a crotch strap to prevent it from slipping over your baby’s head.

And the design is less bulky than many other life jacket options while still offering high-quality, Coast Guard-approved protection.

PROS

  • It’s available in bright yellow.It has dual neck support.
  • It has both a buckle and a strap.
  • It has a grab strap.

4. Stearns Puddle Jumper

If your little one is just getting the hang of swimming, you want buoyancy to keep their head afloat without the bulk that will restrict their movement. You also want a life jacket that won’t keep their entire torso sitting above the water, which won’t allow them to get the feel of lifting it up on their own.
Stearns 3000002180 Puddle Jumper Child Life Jacket, Blue Starfish

If you’ve ever had a child refuse to put on their life jacket because it was bulky and uncomfortable, you might want to try a Puddle Jumper.

Even though it looks nothing like a traditional life jacket, it’s still US Coast Guard approved (Type III) and is secure because it wraps around both the upper arm and around the torso.

For your budding swimmer, this option will keep your child’s head above water while keeping their torso unencumbered.

They’ll be able to freely move their arms and legs to practice their swimming stroke, and still be able to feel what it’s like to raise their torso to the top of the water on their own.

PROS

  • There are many designs available.
  • It is comfortable for children to wear.
  • It will not float the torso so the child can maintain a swimming position.
  • It is not bulky.

5. O’Neill Infant USCG Vest

If you’re going offshore, it’s recommended that you have a Type 1 flotation device. The bad news is that these aren’t widely available for purchase in small children’s sizes. So use extreme caution if you’re planning an excursion into rough ocean waters and look into commercial-grade life jacket options. If you’re staying close to shore in calm waters, opt for a well-rated Type II device that’s brightly colored to easily spot in the water in case of emergency.
O'Neill Superlite USCG nylon infant life vest Yellow/pacific/coal

If you’re taking your little one out into the open ocean, safety is paramount. This life jacket will quickly flip your baby on their back and keep their face out of the water, preventing them from drowning if there’s an accident.

And between the bright yellow color and the attached grab strap, they’ll be located and pulled from the water quickly.

Reviewers agree that their babies found this life jacket to be comfortable, and the crotch strap will keep them safe and secure.

And with the dual-fasten zipper and adjustable buckle, you’ll be able to customize the size and get the life jacket as snug – and safe – as possible.

PROS

  • Brightly colored for easy recovery.
  • Crotch strap prevents slipping over head.
  • Designed to facilitate face-up flotation.
  • It is high quality.

My Favorite Is…

While I personally love the comfort and design of the Puddle Jumper, overall safety wins out and my top pick is the Stearns Infant Hydro.

It’s US Coast Guard approved with all the safety features you’d want – neck support, crotch straps, grab strap, and bright color – all wrapped up in a sleek, non-bulky design. And not only is it safe, but it’s more comfortable than many of the other options.

There are lots of flashy and adorable life jackets on the market today, but don’t let them distract you from the essential safety features. Because in the event of an emergency, that’s all that really matters.

Related Reading:

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