Water Safety: Choosing The Right Life Jacket For Your Child

Summer will be here shortly and that means WATER.  As a self-proclaimed Moana {as in I always come back to the water} my family spends a majority of its time either on a boat, by a lake, on a paddleboard, or in a pool, so water safety is of the utmost importance, especially with three little ones.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger. For every child who dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department care for nonfatal submersion injuries. Children ages 1 to 4 have the highest drowning rates. The most alarming of these statistics is that among children 1-14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death {after motor vehicle crashes}.

While I understand that most drowning incidents are accidents, just like the majority of motor vehicle crashes, I wholeheartedly believe just like researching car seats to protect our children we should take every step possible to ensure water safety and put the same effort into researching life jackets, swimming/ISR lessons, and even color of swimsuits!
water life jacketTo save you from the deep interweb of life jackets for little ones (and spending hundreds of dollars on garbage ones like me!) I’ve compiled some helpful tips, rules, and my favorite U.S. Coast Guard {USCG} approved life jackets for a fun, SAFE summer on the water for you and your children!
water life jacket

Keep the following in mind when selecting a life jacket for a child:

  • To work correctly, a life jacket or personal flotation device {PFD} must be worn, fit snugly, and not allow the child’s chin or ears to slip through.  
  • Child life jacket approvals are based on the child’s weight. Check the “User Weight” on the label or the approval statement that will read something like “Approved for use on recreational boats and uninspected commercial vessels not carrying passengers for hire, by persons weighing __ lbs.” They can be marked “less than 30,” “30 to 50,” “less than 50,” or “50 to 90.”
  • Michigan law requires all children under six years of age to wear a USCG-approved Type I or II PFD when riding on the open deck of any boat while underway. {PFD laws for all states here}
  • Each person riding on a jet ski or Personal Water Craft {PWC} or being towed behind a PWC or other vessel must wear a USCG-approved Type I, II, or III personal flotation device. Inflatable PFDs are not allowed on PWC or while being towed behind any PWC or boat.
  • Most importantly a life jacket/personal flotation device is not a substitute for adult supervision – NEVER leave a child unattended in or near the water.

waterAccording to the USCG there are 5 types of life jackets (PFDs), the three most recognizable are:

  • TYPE I – Best for open, rough or remote waters where rescue may take time.
    • Turns most unconscious wearers face-up in water.
    • Highly visible in color.
    • Floats the person the best, however, this PFD is often large and bulky.
  • TYPE II – Best for calm, inland water or where there is a high probability of fast rescue.
    • Not suitable for extended survival in rough water.
    • A Type II will turn SOME unconscious wearers face-up in water.
    • Often requires the wearer to tread water in order to keep head above water. 
  • TYPE III – Good for calm, inland water or where there is a high probability of fast rescue.
    • Generally the most comfortable type for continuous wear and available in a variety of styles and colors.
    • A Type III PFD allows freedom of movement for most active water sports including water-skiing, small boat, sailing, fishing, swimming, etc.
    • Individuals may have to tilt their head back to avoid going face down, not for extended survival in rough water.

A great way to test a child’s lifejacket is to pick the child up by the shoulders of the PFD. If you’ve got the right fit, the PFD will not slip above the child’s chin and ears.

water life jacket infant child youth favoriteMy FAVORITE Life Jackets:

  1. Stohlquist WaterWare Infant and Stohlquist Child– This is hands down my favorite of all infant life jackets I’ve tried. The best feature, in my opinion, is the V-neck {see image below}. The child is secure but the V-neck allows for more movement and their face/neck is not squished especially when being held, and trust me this includes the chubbiest of babies.  The back of this PFD is also not bulky as it’s just cross straps with the head support which is nice for naps, walking, being held, and of course, if they were to fall into the water to roll them on their back and support the head.  The infant weight {0-30lbs} is rated a Type II and the child weight {30-50lbs} is rated a Type III which provides good support to children with some swimming skills. It is available via Amazon {with prime shipping} or directly from the Stohlquist website.
  2.  Level Six Puffer Infant Life Jacket – Before you read past this be aware this is a Canadian company and therefore the lifejacket is NOT USCG approved as it has not been tested under US Standards – HOWEVER I love this life jacket! Like #1 it has the ability to roll a child 9-25lbs on their back should they fall in the water but still allows them to be mobile due to the back being a neoprene harness. Straps are adjustable for those long torso babes and its not too hot in the summer heat.  This is my go-to for boating adventures! It is available via Amazon or from the Level Six website. 
  3. Hyperlite Child Indy Vest – Also available in a variety of colors, this neoprene vest is my go-to for life on the lake. This vest is great for swimming, tubing, the pool, playing on a lily-pad, or just when I’m not 100% comfortable my child is not going to fall off the dock while fishing. Please note this PFD is rated a Type III for children who weigh 30-50lbs so I would ensure your child is able to keep their head above water or that a fast rescue would happen should they go into the water. It is available via Amazon, the Hyperlite website, and online/in-store at most Costco locations.
  4. Mustang Lil’ Legends Life Vest – If you are serious about boating or much prefer the Great Lakes or coastal boating over inland lakes/intercoastal waterways, then this PFD would be the best choice. It is a Type II rated life jacket with all the bells and whistles when it comes to PFDs; constructed with ultra-soft, stain-resistant outer fabric, a ventilated mesh back, and a moisture-wicking liner, this vest provides all-day comfort and reduces complaints. The zipper and buckle closure with the leg strap creates a secure fit, and the three-piece collar cradles the head when in the water. The grab loop makes quick rescue possible, and reflective accents ensure visibility. It is a little bulkier, but definitely worth it. It is available via Amazon and the Mustang website.
  5. Puddle Jumper – Being completely honest here I use a puddle jumper BUT my ISR instructor and the internet has advised me otherwise hence my * disclaimer. This Type V rated PFD is great in my opinion for being in the pool, lake, or beach with adult supervision when you just don’t have enough hands to hold or wrangle multiple children who can not yet swim alone. The reason for this is that studies show this PFD creates an upright swimming position which is literally the drowning position for children and impossible for children under 4 to maintain. Not to mention many believe that Puddle Jumpers create a false sense of security and confidence for children who do not yet have the cognitive capability to understand that they need the device to float in the pool. Thus, the problem occurs when the child is not wearing the puddle jumper. The child is now conditioned to believe that not only can they can swim alone in the pool, but they are supposed to do so in an upright position. So like I said I do use this device, rarely but I do, and when I do I give my children breaks from it to reinforce that they can not swim/float without it and we are HUGE supporters of ISR so before we exit the pool after wearing the Puddle Jumper we do a couple of starfishes for muscle memory! Please use your own judgment with this PFD, and definitely on boats in motion or situations where a water rescue may occur as this will not keep an unconscious person’s head out of the water. It is available via Amazon or the Stearns website.
  6. Hyperlite Youth Vest – In my opinion you can’t go wrong with HyperLite or if not this brand a good quality neoprene vest. There is something about the feel and freedom of movement it allows that makes it much easier for kids. This small size version of this vest is for kids 50-70lbs and is rated a Type III, there are two additional weight options for bigger kids and a smaller version for toddlers up to 30lbs. with head-support. I just love Hyperlites colors, style and look – most importantly I know they’re safe . It is available via the Hyperlite website and online/in-store at most Costco locations.

water life jacketFor more information or to answer any additional questions you may have about life jackets/personal flotation devices or the laws pertaining to PFDs please visit:

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