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If you’re in a hurry and just want to find out what the best life jacket for toddlers is, I’d recommend the Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest.
With the warmer weather on its way, people are starting to plan their summer adventures, and most times, that involves being around some form of water. If you have little ones, then you’re likely on the hunt for the perfect life jacket for your toddler. Here at Smart Parent Advice, we have taken a close look at many that are on the market today and chosen the best ones to recommend to you.
Here are the toddler life jackets I will be reviewing:
- Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest
- Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket
- Stearns Infant Classic Series Vest
- O’Neill Infant Superlite USCG Life Vest
- Full Throttle Child Water Buddies Life Vest
- Stearns Original Puddle Jumper Kids Life Jacket
- Full Throttle Infant Baby-Safe Vest
- Speedo Swim Flotation Classic Life Vest
How To Choose The Best Life Jacket For Your Toddler
The United States Coast Guard provides five different types of classification when it comes to life jackets, but only three of them are suitable for children.
Type I is the most protective, being designed for off-shore excursions. This type of life jacket is best suited for boating activities out on open water, where the water can be rough and wavy. These life jackets focus on buoyancy and turning the wearer onto their backs for ultimate safety. The downside to these types of flotation devices is that they are bulky and not very comfortable to wear. However, if you are planning a boating excursion or will be near deep water, then this is the type of life jacket you will want for your toddler.
Type II life jackets are for near-shore activities where rescue would be fast and immediate. They are a little less bulky to wear, but still provide a solid amount of safety and protection. These jackets are designed for wear in calm, inland waters or pools, however close supervision is still required at all times. They will not necessarily turn an unconscious swimmer on to their backs.
Type III life jackets are more of a flotation aid, meant for calm, inland waters only. They will not turn an unconscious swimmer on to their backs, and they are not suitable for rough or wavy waters. These jackets are great for older toddlers who have become familiar with water and swimming, as they are less bulky and cumbersome than the other types. Close parental supervision is necessary and expected when using these jackets.
You will want to consider your toddler’s level of exposure to water, and their overall swimming skills. Most toddlers would require a Type I or II life jacket, especially when out on open waters. However, if your little one is quite comfortable being around water, and you plan to be swimming with them or sitting close by at all times, then they would be fine to wear a Type III flotation device when swimming in pools or calm, inland waters.
Safety Tips When Using Life Jackets
There are a few safety tips to consider when choosing the best life jacket for your toddler.
Is it certified?
When choosing a life jacket for your toddler, be sure to select one that is certified by the USCG. This is an important consideration, as there are many inflatable toys and devices that could be construed as flotation devices, but really, they are little more than water toys. Choose a jacket that is certified and specifically designed for your child’s height and weight.
Does it have the necessary safety features?
Depending on what type of life jacket you are looking for (Type I, II, or III) you will want to make sure that the life jacket you choose has the proper safety features for its classification. For instance, a Type I life jacket should have basic safety features such as a loop at the back of the neck for easy rescue out of the water. They should also have a leg strap to ensure that the life jacket stays in place and doesn’t ride up over the head. Lastly, infant and toddler life jackets should have a padded head support that helps to keep your child’s head above water. When looking for a life jacket to purchase, make sure it includes all of these safety features.
Does it fit properly?
This is one of the biggest things to consider when choosing the right life jacket for your toddler. Some parents may be inclined to go a size larger, so that they can get more seasons out of the jacket. This is not recommended, because if the life jacket is too big, it will simply slip off, defeating the purpose completely. The life jacket should fit snugly, but not too tight. It should not pull over your child’s head when lifted by the arms. It should also not be too short on your toddler, as that is not safe nor comfortable for your child.
How To Ensure Your Toddler’s Life Vest Is Put On Correctly
While it may seem fairly straightforward putting on a life jacket, there are some common mistakes that parents make when putting a life jacket on their child. One of the most common mistakes is not ensuring that the belts along the torso are tightened properly. You don’t want to be uncomfortably tight, but they do need to be snug enough that the life jacket won’t slip off. The same goes for the crotch strap, if your child’s life jacket comes with one.
This brief video from Boat Ed gives some helpful tips for making sure that the life jacket you choose for your child is fitted properly:
This video from the BoatUS Foundation also provides excellent tips to ensure your child’s safety when wearing a life vest:
My Top Toddler Life Jacket Reviews
There are many different life jackets on the market that are suitable for toddlers. At Smart Parent Advice, we have looked closely at all of their various features and chosen the best ones to recommend to you.
Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest
Our top choice for a toddler life jacket is the Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest, due to the quality safety features it offers and its reasonable price. Certified by the United States Coast Guard as a Type II life jacket, this vest is made with a quality nylon shell, polyethylene foam interior, and comfortable polyester lining. The straps are durable, and the large sturdy zipper is easy to zip and holds tight.
Added safety features include reflective strips on both sides of the vest for increased visibility and a contoured neck opening to help keep your child’s head above water. The life jacket is brightly colored with a sturdy rescue handle on the top for easy assistance in the water. Two thick straps across the torso allow for customized sizing, while the hydroprene-material-covered crotch strap ensures that the life jacket won’t slip off in the water. Users found the material of the crotch strap to be more comfortable than other models, and children found the life jacket to be fairly comfortable to wear. The arm holes are slightly larger than other models as well, which increases the user’s flexibility and movement in the water.
This is a Type II PFD, so it is not guaranteed to always flip your child on to their back when in the water. Proper supervision is always required when little ones are swimming. This Type II PFD is one of the sturdiest on the market in this price range, and most users found that it did in fact help their toddler to remain on their back when swimming. Always refer to the USCG guide to different types of life jackets when selecting the best life jacket for your child.
- Bright colors help to stand out in water
- Two reflective strips on either side of vest for increased visibility
- USCG Certified Type II PFD
- Sturdy straps and strong zipper
- Crotch strap is covered with softer material to prevent chafing
- Arm holes are large enough to have full range of motion, while still being safe
- Some users found that the jacket did not flip the swimmer on to their back
- Material can be somewhat rough
- Sizing is not always accurate
- Some found the jacket bulky and uncomfortable
Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket
Our top pick for being the best fitting life jacket is the Stohlquist Toddler Life Jacket, which is approved and certified by the USCG as a Type II PFD. The product description and company website both stress the importance of understanding the USCG’s various ratings when it comes to life jackets. A Type II jacket does not always flip a swimmer on to their back, and it is not a substitute for parental supervision in the water.
This jacket, however, is very well made, and users say that it fits true to sizing. The bright colors that it can come in make visibility in the water even better, and it allows you to choose the colors that you find most pleasing for your little one.
The contoured v-neck shape around the neck prevents the life jacket from riding up and making it uncomfortable for children to wear. Most users report that their child had no problem wearing the life jacket, compared to other life jackets that caused a lot of discomfort both in and out of the water. Children have good flexibility and movement when wearing this life jacket, which was a big plus for parents and guardians.
The adjustable crotch strap is somewhat thin, and can be uncomfortable for some users, but it is an excellent safety feature that is crucial for life jackets to have. Adjusting the strap to the appropriate length helps increase comfort. The strap should look loose when the child is in a sitting position, but be snug against the body when the child is standing. If it is too tight, it will cause the life jacket to ride up and be uncomfortable.
- Fits well, accurate sizing
- Keeps babies on their back for the most part
- User found vest comfortable to wear
- USCG Certified Type II PFD
- Less bulky than other styles
- Crotch belt is thin and uncomfortable
- Some users did not find it flipped their child on to their backs
- Tight around head and neck
- Listed as a “buoyancy aid” not a life jacket
Stearns Infant Classic Series Vest
As with all life jackets, it is important to note the difference in the USCG’s life jacket ratings. A Type II life jacket such as this Stearns Infant Classic Series Vest provides added safety in the water and is meant for near-shore activities where an adult is close by supervising. Some reviews of this life jacket report complaints and concerns that the life jacket does not immediately flip a child on to their back in the water, however a Type II life jacket is not guaranteed to always do this.
This product comes with a 16-page information booklet, outlining the various USCG life jacket ratings, as well as how this jacket is to be used safely. The booklet also provides parents with tips on how to safely introduce their child to the water and how to test it out ahead of time to ensure your little one is safe and secure in the water.
If you are looking for a sturdy Type II life jacket for your little one to wear around the pool or beach, where you will be close by, then this jacket is a good quality flotation device at an excellent value. The Stearns brand of life jackets is known for their quality and durability.
The bright red color of the life jacket allows for excellent visibility in the water, and users report that the sizing and fit of this life jacket is accurate. The rescue handle on the top of the collar allows you to provide immediate rescue should your little one need help. The large collar also helps to prevent your child’s head from going under water.
- Bright red color for visibility
- USCG Certified Type II PFD
- Fits snug and secure
- Helps baby float on their back
- Sturdy design and strong straps
- Some users found neck opening uncomfortable
- Listed as a “buoyancy aid” not a life jacket
- Does not flip all users on to their backs
- Some material to be cheap
O’Neill Infant Superlite USCG Life Vest
One of the most popular features of this life vest is its lightweight materials that customers love. The bright blue and yellow colors help to increase visibility in the water, and the lightweight polyethylene foam helps to keep children safe and buoyant in the water. The coated polyester shell withstands the elements, increasing the jacket’s durability. As a USCG-certified Type II life jacket, this jacket is not a life-saving device but a flotation aid.
Despite it being made from lightweight materials, however, some users still found it to be a bulkier life jacket, compared to other life jackets of similar value. Movement is reported to be somewhat restricted when wearing, and its shorter style was not favored by all users.
The quick-release delrin buckles help make things easier on parents when putting on the life jacket and taking it off. There are two delrin buckles across the torso, and a third buckle where the crotch strap attaches to the life jacket. Some users report that the crotch strap is uncomfortable for their child, however this seems to be a standard issue with most life jackets. Overall, parents reported that their child got used to wearing this jacket fairly quickly.
This life jacket seems to be best suited for older babies and toddlers, as many reviewers with young babies reported that the oversized collar made it difficult for their baby to move around when wearing. However, parents of older babies and toddlers found that their child got used to wearing the life jacket and had few complaints once in the water.
- Comes in a variety of bright colors
- Comfortable to wear
- USCG Certified Type II PFD
- Design helps flip swimmers onto their backs
- Sizing is accurate and fits well
- Collar of vest can be uncomfortable and bulky, especially for babies
- Some users found headpiece so bulky that child could not flip onto back
- Movement is restricted when wearing
Full Throttle Child Water Buddies Life Vest
The most important thing to note about these life jackets is that they are USCG-certified Type III PFD, so they are in a different rating class than some of the others in this list. It does not mean that they are of lesser quality, it just means that they serve a different purpose based on the rating system.
For use in calm, in-land waters and pools, this flotation aid comes in a variety of adorable designs that will surely please your little one. From dinosaurs to princesses, kids will get a kick out of wearing these cute jackets.
This life jacket is a great option for older toddlers who have already been exposed to water and are starting to learn how to swim. This life vest would give them the added confidence of keeping buoyant in the water, while still keeping them protected. As with all Type III life vests, it is imperative that an adult is close by at all times, and that the vest is only used in calm in-land waters or pools.
The Water Buddies Life Vest is lighter than other life jackets and less bulky, so many reviewers reported that their children were pleased to wear the vest, and that it did not cause as much irritation or discomfort as some of the other life jackets on the market. Children have an easier range of motion when swimming, and this life jacket does not ride up around the neck and chin either.
Again, due to its USCG rating, this life jacket is best suited for older toddlers who have some experience in and around water, and who have the physical strength to hold their head out of the water. This jacket does an excellent job of providing added buoyancy in the water and keeping children afloat.
- Cute, colorful designs
- Provides adequate flotation assistance
- Meant for early swimmers with adult supervision close by
- Not as restrictive as other designs
- User found this comfortable to wear
- USCG Type III PFD – not meant as life-saving flotation device
- Will not flip child on to their back
- Some users found the jacket design pushed child’s face into water
- Back design makes it hard for child to float and keep head out of water
Stearns Original Puddle Jumper Kids Life Jacket
There seemed to be some discrepancy when researching the reviews for the Stearns Puddle Jumper. So, as we always do here at Smart Parent Advice, we decided to dig deep and get to the bottom of things. It turns out that Stearns was bought by The Coleman Co. in 2008, and since then, there have been two versions of the Puddle Jumper out on the market. There is the original Stearns Puddle Jumper, and there is the Puddle Jumper that is now produced by Coleman Co.
As with any merger, production lines change, and sometimes the quality of a product can be altered as well. It seems, according to various reviews, the quality of the newer Coleman-produced Puddle Jumper is inferior to the original Stearns Puddle Jumper. The stitching along the seams doesn’t seem to be as tight, and some users complained of it unravelling in spots. However, other users say that this product is by far their favorite flotation aid to use with their children.
The bright, colorful designs are fun for kids and help to make it a bit more enticing to wear. There are many different patterns and designs to choose from, including starfish, crab, toucan, elephants, watermelons, and mermaids.
These flotation aids are great for older toddlers who have already gained some experience in the water. It helps to keep them afloat in the pool, while giving them much more freedom of movement while swimming. It is important that an adult is always close by to supervise, as these are classified as Type III PFDs by the USCG, meaning that they are flotation aids rather than life jackets.
- Very comfortable to wear
- Toddlers love the freedom of movement
- Adjustable straps at back allow for growth
- Bright colors for visibility
- USCG Type III PFD – not a life jacket
- Some users found product to be a Sterns knock-off, not authentic
- User found it did not keep child afloat
- Stitching was cheap/unravelling
Full Throttle Infant Baby-Safe Vest
The Full Throttle Infant Baby-Safe Vest is a Type II PFD, certified by the USCG. It is designed to fit infants under 30 lbs, and has an oversized collar to help protect your baby’s head while in the water. While it is still a Type II PFD, it does include all relevant safety features, including a sturdy rescue handle on the collar, crotch strap, and padded head support in the oversized collar.
One of the most popular features on this life jacket is the comfortable elasticized fabric crotch strap. This provides so much added comfort to little ones, as there is no rough strap chafing their legs and groin while swimming. The fabric strap fits more like underwear elastic, and users report their babies being much more comfortable.
The downside to the fabric crotch strap is that it is not adjustable. Some reviews mention the need for added adjustable straps in order to customize the sizing a bit more. There is one adjustable strap across the torso and another at the shoulder opening. The buckle opening at the collar, in lieu of zippers, does make this life jacket easy to put on and off. It does, however, cut down on the number of ways you can secure the life jacket to fit your child, which was a recurring complaint by users.
Some people found that the synthetic material of the jacket was a bit rough and not as comfortable as the materials used in other life jackets. The neck opening also fits quite snugly, which some users found to be too constricting on their child.
- Comfortable elasticized fabric crotch strap
- Oversized collar for added head support
- Very comfortable to wear
- Fits looser around neck than other styles of life jacket
- Some users found design to be bulky
- Sizing is inaccurate
- Material is somewhat rough
- Needs more straps to adjust for sizing
Speedo Swim Flotation Classic Life Vest
The Speedo Swim Flotation Classic Life Vest is a great option for older toddlers and young children who are comfortable and somewhat experienced in the water. They should have early swimming skills and not need continual flotation support. This life vest adds some extra buoyancy in the water, so they can practice their swimming skills and gain confidence in the water.
This life vest is built with soft, durable neoprene, which is very light but provides warmth and buoyancy. It comes in two bright color combinations that help to add increased visibility when your children are swimming.
It does not have any adjustable straps, except the crotch strap, so it is important to select the correct size when ordering. A simple full zipper down the front makes for easy putting on and taking off, allowing your little one to be even more independent.
The UV50+ Block the Burn protection in the life vest gives your child added protection against the sun’s harmful rays, while they play the whole day in the pool!
Many users found that this life vest gave their child the confidence to become even more independent when swimming. The style of the vest and the way it fits on the body allows for full range of motion when swimming. It is not cumbersome, like some water wings and other flotation aids can be. This allows children to build their swimming skills in a natural way, while still giving them that little bit of support in the water.
- Comfortable to wear
- Bright colors for visibility
- Great for children who are ready to try swimming
- Has UV50+ Block the Burn protection
- Increased mobility for swimmers
- It is a flotation aide not a life vest
- Only adjustable strap is the crotch strap
- Some users found sizing too small
- Material can sometimes cause skin irritation
Overall, we were very pleased with the Stearns Heads-Up Child Vest and would recommend it to any parent looking for a top-quality life jacket for their toddler at a reasonable price. Be sure to do your research when choosing the best life jacket for your toddler, and check the USCG’s ratings on each jacket. Happy swimming!