We will walk you through essential sizing and fitting tips to get the best USCG approved life jackets for kids of all sizes while explaining the 2 common PFD (personal flotation device) types for kids.
Sizing Life Jackets for Kids
Fit is important in keeping a child’s head above water, so do not get a too-big life jacket thinking he or she will grow into it.
Sizing for a youngster depends on his or her weight (not chest size, as it does with adults). The three USCG approved sizes available are:
- Infant: up to 30 pounds
- Child: 30 to 50 pounds
- Youth: 50 to 90 pounds
Types of USCG Approved Life Jackets
When it comes to USCG approved life jackets or PFDs there two categories that dominate recreational water activities.
Type II: These are suitable for calm inland waters, where there is a likely chance of a fast rescue, is the intent of these PFDs. They will turn some unconscious wearers to the face-up position but not all of them.
USCG Type II life jackets for kids should have the following features:
- Flotation foam head support to help keep the child’s head above water.
- Grab handle to assist retrieving the child out of the water.
- Crotch strap to help keep the PFD from riding up or over the head.
Type III: These are suitable for various sports activities and the most comfortable for continuous wear and freedom of movement. They are good for where there is a quick chance of rescue. They are designed so wearers can put themselves in a face-up position, but they may have to tilt their head back to avoid being face down in water.
USCG Type III life jackets for kids generally do not have a head support, grab handle nor crotch strap found in Type IIs. They tend to be similar in features and cut to their adult versions.
Which Type of Life Jacket is best for my Child?
Infant PFDs should always be Type II to best aid in turning an infant face up and head back in the water.
Child PFD types depend on the child’s ability to swim and their comfort in the water. If they are not strong swimmers or not comfortable in the water a Type II is best, and the most popular choice. If they are a swimmer and comfortable in the water, a type III will afford greater comfort and ease of movement which kids like.
Youth PFD types are dominated by Type III PFDs. They have many of the same features as adult life jackets. If a child swims and is comfortable in the water, the comfort, adjustability, and ease of movement these afford are preferred. If swimming ability is limited or they are not comfortable in the water, Type II life jackets are best.
Feature wise, the more straps a life jacket has, the more adjustments can be made for proper sizing.
What Inflatable Life Jackets are Available for Kids?
Inflatable life jackets are available for older children, but they are not USCG approved. Typically inflatables are worn in situations where you do not anticipate the child being in the water, and if they do go in the water the vest will automatically inflate (or can be manually inflated). We highly recommend that inflatable life jackets for kids be automatically inflating.
Sizing is for kids weighing 45 – 110 lbs, but check the manufacture’s label. Inflatables are not recommended for Infant and Child size kids (generally anyone under 50 lbs).
Advantages of inflatable life jackets:
- They are more comfortable to wear, thus more likely to be worn
- They provide substantially more flotation in the water than foam PDFs
- Many come with an attachment point for a tether to attach kids to the boat for safety
- Optional safety items can be added to them: Strobe light, AIS, spray hood
Disadvantages of inflatable life jackets:
- Require annual inspection (or as directed by the manufacture)
- Must be rearmed if the child enters the water and it inflates
- Must also carry a USCG approved life jacket appropriate for their size on board.
NOTE: Be sure the inflatable has a crotch strap, and always use it.
Tips for Fitting and Wearing a Life Jacket for Children
A child’s life jacket must fit snugly to be effective. Here are some fit test tips:
- Check the manufacturer’s label to ensure that the life jacket is intended for your child’s 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.
Familiarize your child with a life jacket beforehand so they will be comfortable wearing it, and less likely to panic if they find themselves in the water by suprise.
Infants and toddlers sometimes ‘hate’ to be in their life jacket. Prepare your youngster ahead of time at home to help them feel comfortable. Make a game out of wearing their PFD around the house before you head out on the water.
Practice in the Water First
Test your child’s life jacket by putting it on them and making them float in the water with you. Have your child wear and practice swimming with the life jacket so that they can see how it will feel and act in the water. You will want to do this in calm water – pools are best – with no surprises. Because children often panic when they fall into the water suddenly, this will help them learn what to expect.
While a life jacket will keep a child afloat, it may not keep a struggling child face up. Violent movement, especially with the arms, can counteract a life jacket’s balance of buoyancy. Therefore, it is important to teach children how to wear a life jacket and how to relax their arms and legs in the water.
For infants the USCG recommends that ‘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.’
If they are testing out an inflatable life jacket, have them go into the water (jumping is best) and let the vest auto inflate. This experience will demystify the inflation process and their ‘what to expect anxieties’. Be sure to have a rearm the inflatable after the practice session, and also keep a spare rearm kit on board.
Life Jacket Safety Points
- Every year, check the life jacket for fit as well as wear and tear. Throw it away if you find air leakage, mildew, rot or rust. Cut up discarded life jackets so someone else doesn’t try to use them.
- If a child panics in the water and thrashes about, they may turn onto their face, even though a life jacket with a collar is designed to keep them on their back with face out of the water. Have your child practice wearing a life jacket in the water – this will help prevent panic and rolling over.
- Never cut or alter a life jacket in any way. It will no longer be Coast Guard approved since it may lose its effectiveness.
- Wear your own life jacket to set an example for your child, and to enable you to help your child if an emergency occurs.
- Never use toys like plastic rings, arm floats or water wings in place of a life jacket.
- Don’t attach a life jacket to a car seat for your infant. A car seat expelled from a boat in a crash or capsizing could flip upside down, holding your baby’s face under water.
- Some infants may be too small proportionally for just any infant life jacket, even though the label may say 0-30 lbs. In general, babies under 6 months or 16 pounds are too small for some life jackets to be effective due to the extreme size of their head in relationship to their body mass. For newborns, either pool test them in their life jacket to make sure it supports them upright properly, or consider waiting until the baby is a little older before taking them on the water.
Overall, remember: life jackets only work when they are worn, and they do not take the place of adult supervision!