Keep your kids safe and secure in all types of water situations, such as boating and swimming, with our tips for choosing U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.

By Kate Bayless
Updated May 06, 2020
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Water wings and inner tubes look like instant fun, but a blow-up anything is just a toy, not a safety device. “If it inflates, it can deflate,” says Linda Quan, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle. Research indicates that life jackets (often used interchangeably with the term "personal flotation devices") are the safest and best devices approved by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)  to prevent drowning.

Kids should wear a life jacket when they’re in or around water, riding on boats, or walking on docks. If your kid can swim, his ability won’t protect him in all situations—you’ll need to judge the water conditions and quality of supervision.

Here, we've gathered the age-appropriate guidelines you need to select the best life jackets—based on type, style, and fit—to keep your kids safe this summer.

STEP 1: Choose the Best Life Jacket for Your Activity

The USCG classifies life jackets into five different types, but only Types I-III are approved for children to use. Select the jacket best suited for the type of activity and water conditions your child will encounter.

Type I: Offshore Life Jacket

  • Best for: Extended survival in rough seas, open ocean, or remote water where quick rescue is unlikely
  • Advantages: Designed to turn an unconscious person face up; lots of buoyancy
  • Disadvantages: Bulky, not comfortable for extended wear

Type II: Near Shore Buoyant Vest

  • Best for: Calm, inland water and most general boating activities where there is a good chance of a quick rescue
  • Advantages: Many turn an unconscious person face up; less bulky than Type I
  • Disadvantages: Will not turn all unconscious persons face up; not intended for extended support in rough seas

Type III: Flotation Aid

  • Best for: Calm, inland waters only
  • Advantages: Most comfortable and lightweight; easy to wear for extended periods of time
  • Disadvantages: Most not designed to turn an unconscious person face up; not suited for rough waters or open seas

STEP 2: Pick a Life Jacket Design

Modern life jackets combine style and USCG-certified safety, but the most important decision in choosing a life jacket is the design underneath. Here are three different styles of life jackets.

Inherently buoyant: Made of floatable foam or neoprene, inherently buoyant life jackets are durable, need little maintenance, and require no action from the wearer to work.

Inflatable: Inflatable life jackets can automatically deploy upon submersion in water or be manually inflated. They are not approved for children under the age of 16 and not currently recommended for non-swimmers. Inflatable life jackets require extra maintenance, and are not appropriate for activities that involve frequent water entry.

Hybrid: Made with a combination of buoyant material and an inflatable chamber, hybrid life jackets are available in child sizes but require frequent maintenance checks. They are not suitable for all water activities, but because they are less bulky, they are ideal for extended wear and for those who are reluctant to wear a jacket.

STEP 3: Understand Important Life Jacket Features

When buying a life jacket for kids, make sure it’s USCG approved and fits your child’s size and weight. For young kids, it should have a loop at the back of the neck and a strap between the legs. (If you have to lift your kid out of the water using the neck loop, the leg strap will ensure she won’t slip out.)

Life jackets that have armbands and wrap around a child’s torso work just as well (as long as they’re USCG approved). “These let your kid get used to wearing a life jacket and realize she can have fun with one on,” says Dr. Quan.

STEP 4: Does the Life Jacket Fit?

Be aware that having a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket isn't enough to guarantee that you have the best life jacket for your child. "Proper fit is imperative," says Bernice McArdle, Executive Director of the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association. "Improper fit is the most common mistake parents make when buying a life jacket." 

McArdle adds: "Parents will often purchase for their child a life jacket that's too big (and could easily slide off) on the assumption that the child 'will grow into it.' A life jacket won't provide adequate protection if it doesn't fit your child properly." Involving your child in the purchase process is also an important factor in getting them to want to wear their life jacket, as opposed to having to wear one.

You can use the U.S. Coast Guard's fit test to see if a life jacket is the right size for your child.

  • Check the manufacturer's label to ensure that the life jacket is intended for your child's size and weight.
  • Make sure the jacket is properly fastened and cinched to ensure a snug fit.
  • Grasp the top of the arm openings and gently pull up.
  • Have the child hold his arms straight up over his head.
  • See if the life jacket rides up over the child's chin or face and if there is excess room above the armholes. If so, the life jacket is too big for the child.

STEP 5: Practice in Calm Waters

Have your child practice swimming with the life jacket so that he can see how it will feel in the water. Make sure the jacket fits correctly and adequately supports him. Always test the life jacket in a shallow and controlled environment like a public or private pool, or in calm water like a lake cove, under an adult's close supervision.

Teach your child how to relax her arms and legs. Falling into the water or getting knocked over by a wave can be a frightening experience for a child. It's a natural response to flail one's arms, but "arm movements cause the body to move up and down, and the victim unintentionally splashes water onto her own face," says Jim Reiser, aka "The Swim Professor," the founder of Swim Lessons University. "From a survival standpoint it's mainly about balance," Reiser counsels. "If the body can be balanced so that the mouth is above the water and the child can breathe comfortably, the most important objective has been accomplished."

Remember that your kid is more likely to buckle into a jacket if the whole family does it. “Besides, an adult who’s wearing one is better equipped to help a kid who’s having difficulty or needs help swimming, or if they both end up in the water,” says Dr. Quan.

What About Life Jackets for Babies?

Although there are "infant life jackets," most have a large weight range (0 to 30 lbs.) for newborns up to 18 lbs., which make it unlikely that these jackets can provide a secure fit without overwhelming small babies. Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard does not advise taking infants on board recreational boats. "Unless the parents are able to test their newborn out in a life jacket sized for infants, in a swimming pool, they will not know if that device will float their child with her head out of the water. You must be sure you know the life jacket you have works for your infant. Otherwise we recommend that the child not be exposed to any risk in a boat on the water," warns the Coast Guard website

The Bottom Line

The majority of drownings occur in calm, inland waters. Most of those who drowned were within a few feet of safety and had easy access to a life jacket but were not wearing one. Take the time to select the best life jacket for your child's size and activity, and the water conditions, but don't forget the most important thing of all: Life jackets work only if you wear them

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