For many families, summertime means more time in the water. And activities like stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing and rafting can be enjoyed by even the youngest kids if they have a properly fitting life jacket.
So just how do you choose a kids life jacket or a kids life vest? We’ll go over the sizing, different types, and proper fit of life jackets (or vests) for infants, toddlers and big kids. And we’ve included our top three from each category.
These are the best kids life jackets that the TMM team members use for their own families.
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Kids Life Jacket Sizing
The correct size is the most important factor when choosing a new lifejacket. Do not buy a life jacket that your child will grow into. Buy one that fits their current weight.
Kids life jackets are sized according to weight, not chest size (adult life jackets are sized by chest circumference).
Choose the correct size of life vest according to your child’s current weight to ensure that the life jacket keeps their head above water.
- Infant/Toddler: 8-30 lbs (most life jackets are not designed for infants under 8 lbs)
- Child: 30-50 lbs
- Youth: 50-90 lbs
Finding a Good Fit of the Best Kids Life Jackets
Across brands, life vests for kids fit differently. I always buy at least two different brands, in the same size, to make sure I get one that fits well (think Amazon – free returns!). This is especially true for chubby infants. No one likes a life jacket squishing their cheeks or belly!
When trying a life jacket on, lift your child up by the straps of the life jacket. If the jacket slips up past their chin or ears, it’s too big.
When choosing an infant (8-30lbs) or child (30-50 lbs) life jacket, make sure it has the following features:
- Crotch strap (an adjustable strap that goes between their legs, so that the life jacket doesn’t slip up over their head)
- Head pillow (super important for keeping kids floating on their back with their head above the water)
- Handle (to easily retrieve the child if they happen to fall in the water. Also fun for dipping them in to cool off!)
- Bright colors for increased visibility
Types of Kids Life Jackets
There are five different life jacket types, as categorized by the US Coast Guard. Most child and youth life jackets are a type III, while infant life jackets can be type II or III – with type II being the safer choice. These are important to know when choosing the best kids life jackets for your family.
Type I: These have the greatest ability to turn a child face up in the water. A bulky, generally less comfortable fit than a type II or III.
Type II: These may turn some children into a face up position in the water. These are somewhat bulky but more comfortable than a type I.
Type III: The most common type of kids life jacket is a type III. These are not designed to turn a child face up in the water. They work best for a child who has some swimming skills, or at least the ability to get themself into a face up, head back, position independently. The fit is comfortable and not bulky.
Type IV: We will skip this because type IV is not a life jacket, but more of a flotation ring or other life saving tool.
Type V: Type V’s are activity specific life jackets. If your child was whitewater rafting or kayaking on a large volume river like the Grand Canyon, you may want a type V. These are bulky, but offer the maximum amount of flotation and almost always have a head cushion.
Teaching a Child to Float in a Life Jacket
Both my 4 and 6 year old are very comfortable in the water. They’ll do cannonballs into the shallow end of the pool all day. They can blow air bubbles out of their noses. My 6 year old is beginning to swim independently. But when they unexpectedly find themself in the lake, or in the river, even with a life jacket on, they freak out.
It turns out, floating calmly, face up, in a life jacket doesn’t come naturally to kids. It’s something that has to be taught. And it’s a lesson better taught in a controlled environment such as a shallow pool.
Here are a few tips for teaching your child how to float in their life jacket:
- Practice being calm in the water. Flailing arms and legs make it difficult for a life jacket to do its job.
- Practice floating on the back, face up, with arms and legs near the surface of the water.
- Practice turning from a face down position, to a face up position in the water. We call it “flipping the pancake”
TMM Team Members’ Life Jacket Picks
Infant Life Jackets (8-30 lbs)
Stohlquist Toddler: USCG Approved, type II, fits infants 8-30 lbs, $60. Made from PVC-free foam.
This is my personal favorite. My 28 lb, 4-year old can comfortably wear this jacket on the river all day long. The arm holes and neck area are roomy, so no chafing. The double head pillow works really well at keeping heads above water and some of these jackets feature brightly colored beads on the pillow handle, which makes it really easy to grab when kids are in the water.
Salus Bijoux: Salus is a Canadian company, so the life jacket is not USCG approved. Fits infants 9-25 lbs, $90.
This one is highly recommended for very small infants because of the mesh back, which allows infants to lay down (think feedings and diaper changes) and short front (which makes it easier for the baby to be in a sitting position).
The lining is mesh, which helps with breathability and temperature control. The straps that connect the chest to the head pillow are adjustable, making this one an excellent choice for those chubbier babies. No face or belly squeezing!
Hyperlite Indy: USCG approved, type II, fits infants less than 30 lbs, $40.
This is the lifejacket that most of the TMM team and many of our online community recommend! This life jacket has a soft neoprene feel and generous arm holes for increased mobility.
The sides are closed, so this one won’t fit very small infants, but it’s great for toddlers. This is a a great, minimalist life jacket at an affordable price. You can also find it at your local Costco!
Child Life Jackets (30-50 lbs)
Stohlquist Kids: USCG approved, type III, fits kids 30-50 lbs, $55.
The design is identical to the infant version. I really like this one for older toddlers who aren’t yet swimming independently, like my 6 year old. The double head collar helps keep them face up in the water, and the adjustable side straps ensure a proper fit for many body types.
I like the crotch strap as well, because when you lift a heavier toddler out of the water it’s easier for the jacket to come up over the ears and head. The crotch strap keeps it firmly in place, but it’s adjustable – so no wedgies.
Onyx General Purpose: USCG approved, type II, fits kids 30-50 lbs, $15.
TMM team member Kristin’s two kids wear this life jacket on all their kayaking adventures and she highly recommends it. This is a minimalist jacket with two adjustable buckles on the front, and an adjustable crotch strap.
No head pillow, so this one is best for kids who are comfortable floating in the water and can assume the head-back position independently.
Hyperlite Child: USCG approved, type III, fits kids 30-50 lbs, $65.
The Hyperlite Child life jacket came in as the top pick for TMM team members are our online community. We went out on a friends boat last weekend and this was the life jacket both my 4 and 6 year old wore, and they loved that it was soft, squishy and low profile.
Bonus: it kept them afloat when they swam in the lake! The crotch strap keeps the jacket in place, but no head pillow means the user should be able to keep their head back, face up, on their own.
Youth Life Jackets (50-90 lbs)
Stohlquist Kids’ Escape: USCG approved, type III, comes in two sizes; 50-90 lbs or 75-125 lbs.
When my kids outgrow their Stohlquist kids life jackets, this is the one we will put them in. This is a low profile yet super buoyant youth life jacket. The adjustability at the sides and shoulders ensures a safe secure fit on many different body types. My favorite feature is the zippered front pocket for stashing snacks or treasures.
NRS Crew: USCG approved, type III, fits 50-90 lbs, $45.
This is a simple, no frills life jacket that will keep your kid afloat! It features adjustable side straps. The design is low profile and several of our friends whose kids wear this one say it’s comfortable enough to stay on all day long.
Astral Layla: USCG approved, type III, $140.
This is an adult life jacket, but the extra-small size would be suitable for a big kid weighing over 100 lbs with a chest size 27″-31″. This jacket will fit an average-sized 10 or 11 year old.
The zipper closure and one waist buckle makes this life jacket easy to put on, and the adjustable side straps ensure a snug fit. It also has a super handy front pocket with a buckle closure.
The Bottom Line
There are many great kids life jackets out there to fit a variety of budgets. We hope that this post will help you find the best kids life jackets for your family.
Shopping for a kids life jacket is similar to shopping for a carseat. They are all rated to the same safety standards, but a pricier one will have more bells and whistles and might be more comfortable.
The most important factor, though, is size. A kids life jacket will only float a child in a specific weight range. Fit is also important, because bodies come in different shapes and sizes and kids are no different.
And last but not least, teach your child to float in a life jacket in a calm, shallow body of water. Even a type II life jacket with a head pillow will only turn the wearer face-up in the water some of the time. So it’s really important to have your child practice assuming this position independently.
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