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How To Choose The Safest Life Jacket For Your Kids This Summer

From toddlers to teens, this is what experts recommend.

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Ah, yes, summertime and the livin’ is easy — just kidding, the kids are out of school and pinballing around the house while the sun is blazing outside. Obviously the best way to get outdoors and burn energy is to play in the water, which means you’ll want to find the best life jacket for your kid to use around the pool, beach, lake, or wherever you swim. Alas, there’s not one ultimate, perfect-for-everyone life vest out there. You’ll need to know how to choose a life jacket for toddlers, kids, and teenagers in order to find the safest one for them.

Water safety and drowning prevention experts agree that the “best” life jacket for any child is one that fits them well, is U.S. Coast Guard-approved, and is appropriate for the place you’re swimming. It can be overwhelming to stand in the life jacket aisle of the sporting goods store and read the labels on every jacket, so Romper spoke with three experts about Coast Guard life jacket “types,” how to ensure your child’s life vest fits, and some flotation devices that might do more harm than good.

How do you size a life jacket for a child?

Step one of choosing a life jacket: finding the right fit. In any Coast Guard-approved life vest, a weight range will be listed, so choose your child’s vest based on their current weight. Ideally, you should shop for a life jacket in store so you can try it on your little one.

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“You would want to have your child get in the life jacket and then you’re going to want to do a fit test,” says Jessica Winberry, prevention coordinator with THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. “When you are doing that fit test, you want to put the life jacket on with all the parts that are intended. If it’s got buckles, sometimes it has a buckle that comes up through the child’s legs to buckle, all those things need to be used. Once you’ve got that life jacket on correctly, you’re going to kind of lift the child up in the life jacket around the shoulder area. If the child’s shoulders or mouth kind of slip through, it’s too big.”

After you purchase a life jacket, you should let your child practice wearing it in calm waters or a swimming pool, Winberry says. This will help them get comfortable with the life jacket and how it can help them float so that an emergency is not the first time they’re figuring it out.

Parents should also check the size of their child’s life jacket at the start of each summer, says Adam Katchmarchi, PhD, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. Even if your kid still falls within the weight range listed on the jacket, they’ve probably grown and changed a bit since last summer, so you should double check the fit. The U.S. Coast Guard advises that any life jackets with foam should be tested for buoyancy yearly, and if they’re waterlogged, damaged, or even faded, they should be replaced. Winberry adds that you should inspect the life jacket to make sure it’s still in good condition after being used last summer and stored for months.

“The straps can’t be ripped or compromised, they can’t be threadbare, getting weak, things like that. They need to have the same integrity [as when you bought them],” she says.

Coast Guard PFD types & what they mean

Once you determine what size life vest fits your child, be sure you check the label — any personal flotation device (PFD) you’re using should be approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Have every child in a properly fitting life jacket that’s U.S. Coast Guard-approved,” says Ann Schroeppel, senior program associate at SafeKids Worldwide. “There are different life jackets available and approved for different water activities such as kayaking, water skiing, white water rafting, et cetera, based on the age of the child and the activities they’re participating in.”

“Whatever you’re using needs to be U.S. Coast Guard-approved — no, ifs, ands, or buts about it. If it’s not U.S. Coast Guard-approved, it is not a proper flotation device,” says Winberry. “From there, there are multiple different types of life jackets, and the Coast Guard does a great job of putting that on the actual life-saving device.”

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So, if you’re comparing labels and wondering what the different Coast Guard “types” mean, here’s the breakdown:

  • Type I: Use this kind of life vest for “all waters, open ocean, rough seas, or remote water,” meaning in the event of an emergency, it may take longer for rescue to arrive. Winberry and Katchmarchi explain that Type I life jackets are designed to roll the wearer face up in the water, which is important for young children and weak swimmers. It can also prevent drowning when someone hits their head or loses consciousness after entering the water.
  • Type II: The Coast Guard recommends Type II vests for “general boating activities” and swimming in “calm, inland waters, or where there is a good chance for fast rescue.” A Type II PFD is different from a Type I because not all of them will roll the wearer face up in the water, say Katchmarchi and the Coast Guard.
  • Type III: These life vests are designed for general boating, kayaking, water skiing, and more. Type III vests are designed to hold someone in the water in an upright position, but not to turn them face up. They generally offer more range of motion and more comfortable to wear for long periods. They can differ widely, so you should read the labels closely to understand what they’re meant to be used for.

There are also Type V PFDs, but parents don’t need to worry about them. They’re the kind you wear during extreme water sports or while working on commercial vessels. The Coast Guard tests flotation devices for their appropriateness when boating, not for swimming in pools, Katchmarchi notes, so parents won’t find detailed info related to that on most life jacket labels.

How to choose the right life jacket if you’re...

Swimming in a pool (or hanging out near one)

No matter where you’re swimming, a life jacket is not a substitute for supervision, according to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA). Since the Coast Guard tests and categorizes life jackets based on their uses in natural settings and on boats, there isn’t a type that’s officially recommended for use in pools. They could wear one, but Katchmarchi emphasizes the need for close (like within arm’s reach), constant adult supervision.

“When a child’s just going swimming in a pool, if they’re an inexperienced swimmer, our number one recommendation is A. Get them swim lessons and, B. As a parent, make sure you are in the water with that child, within arm’s reach of them at all times. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends children start swimming lessons as early as age 1,” he says.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for toddlers between 1 and 4 years old, and in about 70% of cases, the child didn’t drown during swim time, Katchmarchi says. Instead, they had or gained access to water another time. If you’ll be around a pool, even if you don’t intend to hop in, you might want to throw a life jacket on your little one anyway.

“Say you’re hosting a backyard barbecue and there’s a pool present and you have a child that is a non-swimmer,” Katchmarchi says. “They’re not really expected to be in the water, but, you know, obviously the pool’s there so there is a risk. It’s never a bad idea to put them in a flotation device in that setting.”

During times when you’re not swimming, the NDPA recommends using pool fences and covers and door alarms to restrict children’s access to water.


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If you’ll be boating off-shore or somewhere remote, opt for a Type I life jacket, as recommended by the Coast Guard. You could also opt for a Type II, depending on where you’re going and how calm the waters are, per USCG guidelines. Just be sure to do your research, and carefully read the manual and labels included with your child’s life jacket. And if you’re taking young children along, perhaps just opt for Type I vests no matter what.

“Life jackets should be used predominantly in natural water settings, especially anytime you’re on a watercraft,” Katchmarchi says. “Especially a parent with young children, make sure they’re in devices that are going to roll them face up. That’s gonna be a Type I device. Type IIs look very similar to Type Is, but Type IIs are not designed to roll a person over. I'll be honest, those devices are not the most comfortable nor the most stylish life jacket, but for children who are just going out for the day, we really want to make sure they are in a jacket that is gonna roll them face up if they fall in the water.”

If you’re going boating, know that every state has its own rules about what ages of children are required to wear life jackets while on a boat. Parents should follow the law, but don’t default to taking off your kids’ life jackets when they hit the age where it’s legal to go without one.

“In some states that can be as high as [age] 16 that a child has to wear a life jacket. Some states are as low as 5. Just because your child has aged out of that does not mean that they should not wear a life jacket. That really can make the difference whether someone comes home at the end of the day,” says Katchmarchi.

Swimming in a natural body of water

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Just like boating, the experts urge parents to choose USCG-approved life jackets and carefully consider which type is appropriate for where they’ll be swimming. Even if your child is a capable swimmer in a pool, a life jacket in natural water is still a good idea — Winberry points out that waves, currents, and undertow can surprise even the most confident swimmers.

“Different life jackets have different qualities. For example, some of them might prevent hypothermia when they fall into the water. So, I really suggest parents do their research about the activity they’ll be participating in, and making sure that the life jacket is U.S. Coast Guard-approved, fits snugly and well on your child according to their weight, and is appropriate for the activity,” says Schroeppel.

Don’t forget a life jacket for yourself, too. Even the strongest swimmers can use some help in an emergency.

“If you are a parent or caregiver taking care of a child, it would be important for you to wear a life jacket as well,” says Winberry. “If something were to happen to your child and they fall in the water, the first thing you’re doing is going in after them, and a person that’s struggling in the water can be very difficult to manage no matter their size. We have heard of times where an adult caregiver or parent goes in the water to rescue their child. The child is saved but the adult drowns. Yeah. So if you’re the one supervising a child, you want to protect yourself so that you can protect them, and you don’t want to take precious time to get the life jacket on when you've got a child that’s in the water.”

What about the best life jackets for babies?

You might see baby life jackets for sale online, but they can have a pretty wide weight range and are not likely to fit smaller infants appropriately. For this reason, the U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t recommend taking babies on boats at all.

“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,” says the USCG’s website.

“We are honestly not big fans of infants being on watercraft or around natural water settings,” says Katchmarchi. “There are infant life jackets on the market, but the safest decision is to wait until your child can go into a child-size flotation device that is designed for the activity that you’re participating in.”

Flotation devices to avoid

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These experts made it clear that USCG-approved life jackets are the only flotation devices parents should use on their kids. There are a few styles of floaties that will just never get that Coast Guard stamp of approval. Katchmarchi, Schroeppel, and Winberry all agreed that parents should avoid one product in particular: water wings.

“Let’s definitely call out the water wings,” says Winberry. “They can slip off the child, and oftentimes, they give the parent a false sense of security, and the child may be out in the pool a little bit deeper than they normally would because they’re floating, but there's nothing to hold that on.”

Inner tubes are also not flotation devices that should be used for safety, Winberry says. Also, don’t rely on padded, floatie swim suits.

“Some suits have padding or flotation built into the swim suit. That does not necessarily mean the device is tested and approved,” Katchmarchi says. “And, [using one] does not mean you should not still practice touch supervision and getting your child competent in the water.”

Once you’ve found the best life jacket for your kid, you can rest a little easier knowing they have one extra layer of protection. And, now you can turn your attention to the fun part: finding a super cute new bathing suit.


Adam Katchmarchi, PhD, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance

Ann Schroeppel, senior program associate at SafeKids Worldwide

Jessica Winberry, prevention coordinator with THE PLAYERS Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital

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