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Kids Life Jacket vs Puddle Jumper vs Swim Vest

Updated May 21, 2020

It’s summer, and that means many sunny afternoons spent in the water. Whether you’re boating on the lake or just frolicking in a backyard pool, it’s important to equip kids with the appropriate flotation devices. But which type do you choose?

With all the different names of flotation devices and swim aids, it can get a tad confusing. This guide will explain some of the differences between life jackets, swim aids, and other devices available to help you make the best decision and to insure that your water play is both fun and safe.

As always, use good judgement since every child is different in terms of swimming skills and how well a certain flotation device fits them.

Note: While life jackets are available in all sizes (from infant to adult), Puddle Jumpers, swim vests, and other swimming aids are most often meant for children in the 30-50 lb. range.

See:  Best Toddler and Children Swim Vests and Floatation Devices

What is a life jacket?

best child life jacketA life jacket is a personal flotation device, PFD, which is made of a buoyant, waterproof material that keeps your head above water. They’re available in infant, toddler, child, youth, and various adult sizes.

PFDs are especially important when boating or swimming in deep, open water, and in most states, they are required by law for children under the age of 13 when in a water craft.

Life jackets are sold in most sporting goods and departments stores and also online, but you need to read the product information carefully.

The most important characteristic of a life jacket is that it is approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. These jackets have been tested extensively to make sure they perform as expected.

When purchasing a life jacket, you want to make sure that it says “coast guard approved.

In addition, The U.S. Coast Guard includes an instructional pamphlet with each approved life jacket that details exactly how it should be worn and also gives information on other water safety concerns.

Life jackets come in several different types; each suitable for different boating situations. Type II jackets are less comfortable to wear but more buoyant. They are recommended for situations where a boater might be alone or away from immediate rescue should something go wrong. In children, they can be used for non-swimmers or children who are not entirely comfortable in the water.

Type III jackets are more comfortable and easier to wear, but they are not as buoyant. The are often worn on ski boats or in situations where multiple people are boating together.

They are recommended for children who know how to swim because they will keep your head above water, but they won’t necessarily flip you on to your back like more buoyant jackets will.

It is also important to note that, in recent years, the Coast Guard has approved several styles of inflatable life jackets. However, these are not approved for children under the age of 16.

What is a Puddle Jumper?

best childrens swim vestA Puddle Jumper is a combination life jacket, swim aid, and swim vest. Made by Stearns, it’s one of the most popular swim aids of all time.

Based off the old school “arm floaties”, it improves on the design by attaching the floaties to a mini vest which straps around the child’s chest to keep it secure.

It’s designed for small children, most often between 30 and 50 pounds, and constructed of a comfortable material that prevents chafing and makes it easy for your child to wear.

Puddle Jumpers keep both the chest and arms afloat which helps promote a natural swimming position. Your child slips his or her arms through the arm floats of the puddle jumper, and then it is buckled behind the back to secure it.

Puddle jumpers are approved by the Coast Guard and are considered a type III personal flotation device. The recently introduced Body Glove Puddle Pals line looks to improve on the Puddle Jumper design by adding a shoulder harness to keep the swim aid in place even better.

Time will tell which design will prove to be more popular but it’ll be hard to catch up with the huge head start the Stearns Puddle Jumper has.

What is a swim vest?

speedo begin to swim vestA swim vest is not considered a personal flotation device but a swim aid. This means that it is designed to help children who are learning to swim or who are not yet completely comfortable in the water.

It is not guaranteed to keep a child’s head above water, and it is not Coast Guard approved.

Swim vests come in several sizes and are normally constructed of a neoprene material to help with both buoyancy and warmth. The vest normally zips up the front and often has a strap that goes between the legs and buckles to the vest to keep it securely on your child.

These vests are great for children learning to swim with close adult supervision. They can help give your child confidence in the water without being cumbersome or uncomfortable.

No matter your situation, it’s important to teach your children the importance of water safety before you even set foot in a pool or lake. This knowledge combined with the appropriate flotation device might just save their life.

Also, parents should never count on a life jacket or other PFD but should always be present and observant while children are swimming.

Water activities can be a great summer family activity, but always remember your flotation devices, and help your children have a fun and safe summer.

34 thoughts on “Kids Life Jacket vs Puddle Jumper vs Swim Vest”

    • Kids float suits are good as swimming aids but they’re not Coast Guard approved so they wouldn’t take the place of a life jacket.

  1. We have neighbor hood pool and many parents put the puddle jumpers on their kids and let them play in the deep water and jump off the diving board. Most of the time a parent it not with the child or supervising them. Since as a teen and older, my summer jobs were lifeguarding and teaching swimming. This seems like a bad idea especially since this year we no longer have life guards but just pool monitors. What are your thoughts?

    • If the situation is as you described, then yes, I completely agree it’s a bad idea. Puddle Jumpers are great but they’re not a substitute for adult supervision. As a parent, I immediately think of a child hitting their head on the diving board or side of the pool. Puddle Jumpers and similar are not designed to keep the wearer’s head automatically above water. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but parents leaving their children unsupervised at this age or in the hands of a pool monitor is just irresponsible.

      • I agree with the not letting kids with puddle jumper ALONE in the pool our city pool if your child has one you have to be with them every where but the 3ft my child is 3 and can touch in the three ft but I’m with her the whole time while we’re swimming .

  2. Can you recommend a swim vest for a small toddler? My 2y is 32 inches and 26 pounds and I suspect the Speedo Begin To Swim Vest would be too big for her. She is learning to swim and the vest is for use in our pool (max 5 ft deep) with us in the water with her all the time. We will probably have to hold her too. I think that a no bulky vest may help her to build some confidence in trying to float with minimal support from us. Thank you!

  3. My 6 and 7 year old girls are proficient swimmer in the pool but no in the ocean. Do you recommend a specific PFD or swim aid for swimming in the ocean?

    • Are you referring to swimming at the beach or off-shore when on a boat? If off-shore, they will absolutely need a life jacket. Here’s what we recommend for the 30-50 lbs. and 50-90 lbs. weight ranges. If the former (at the beach) and the conditions are fairly calm and they’re supervised, they can either use one of those PFDs or go without if they (and you) feel comfortable with it.

  4. What do you recommend for my 6 year old? He still cant swim, but he needs something for pools and waterparks. He weighs 52 pounds, and also tall for his age. I would like to get something that will fit him for another 2 years, not something he’s gonna grow out of before next summer. I plan to put him in swim lessons again though

    • I’d recommend either the Speedo or Konfidence swim vests here as long as he is always under adult supervision. Although they probably won’t last a couple years before he’ll outgrow them. But they are great for learning to swim. Other than that, a standard life jacket in the 50-90 lb range is the other option but it’ll be more bulky.

  5. Hello!

    I have a 35lb 2 year old that is a daredevil. He loves water slides and jumping into the pool. He does not know how to swim yet; however, he has no fear. What swimming aid or life vest would you recommend?

    • I think a Puddle Jumper, Puddle Pals, or other swim aid here would be perfect as long as an adult is with him to make sure he stays safe. Sounds like he’s a ball of energy so he should be able to pick it up pretty quickly. I’d also recommend swim lessons as well from a local community college or YMCA.

  6. Hi
    I have a 30 lb 4 year old boy who hasn’t learned to swim but loves water. We would like to try out the shallow pool (which comes to his chest..and where he can walk comfortably) for some time before learning to swim.
    What would you recommend.
    And thanks for your advice.

  7. Your article says puddle jumpers are considered TYPE III. But the puddle jumper we have is TYPE V special use. All the other puddle jumpers I’ve looked at were also considered TYPE V.

    • Up until fairly recently, Puddle Jumpers were classified as only a Type III. I even had the main Puddle Jumper product manager contact me a couple years ago stating it was in fact USCG Type III. The Amazon product page now says “Type V/III” so it technically falls under both types.

      The manufacturer’s stance is that this life jacket is Type V PFD (specialty type) but also approved as a substitute for a Type III PFD but ONLY WHEN WORN. So if state law requires the child to wear a Type III, the Puddle Jumper would suffice when worn.

  8. My toddler boy is 2, weighing about 26 lbs. We’re taking him to a water park with a lazy river. What do you recommend for him? I bought him a puddle jumper last summer for a beach trip and it seemed too big and bulky, it kept rising up and he didn’t appear comfortable.

  9. My child is 7 years old and has taken several swim lessons when younger. But he skipped last year because of the pandemic. He hasn’t completed all the swim lessons he should have by this age, so I want him to wear something while in the pool. He also has nighttime seizures, so I’m want to be extra cautious with him in case he were to have one in the daytime (although unlikely) He is 60 lbs. Thank you!

    • I think being a little extra cautious is almost never a bad idea. Typical “learn to swim” vests like the Puddle Jumper max out at 50 lbs so he’d have to use a “youth” size life vest.

      Here our our recommended life jackets for the 50-90 pound range: https://lifejacketadvisor.com/best-youth-life-jackets/

      Neoprene or comparable material is generally going to be more comfortable. Unfortunately, this is peak life jacket buying season so many products go in and out of stock quickly. Here is a good one that’s currently available: O’Brien Youth Neoprene Life Vest

  10. Hello,
    What do you think the best option(s) would be for am 11 year old boy just learning to swim? He’s had bad past experiences in the water (especially during first professional swim lesson and dropped out so bad). He does not like water in his ears or mouth. Has a fear of swimming under water, drowning, and of “dry” drowning. He likes the water in general but does not want it deep or to go underwater. Family wants to help overcome legitimate fears of water and help him learn to swim at his pace safely. He just turned 11 yesterday, 65 pounds, and 4.5 feet (53 inches). Where do we start and what should he wear? Will be learning in a friend’s backyard above ground 4 foot pool.

  11. Hi,

    My daughter is five. She has been in swim lessons since two years old and she is a great swimmer, advanced for her age. She is going to summer school in a couple weeks and there is a small pool there (4-4.5 ft deep). The kids are going to swim every day. There can be 10-15 kids in the pool at once, with two to three adults closely watching them and making sure they behave.

    Even though she’s a great swimmer, I’m not completely comfortable with her in the pool without me there, without some sort of extra protection. What would you recommend in this case, in regards to a PFD? She already is saying she can swim and she doesn’t want to wear a life jacket/swim vest.

    • If there are other kids her age there, many will probably be wearing a Puddle Jumper because they are so popular (and work great). But if your daughter is already a good swimmer, a swim vest (like the Speedo one) is going to be more comfortable and allow better range of motion for swimming. Either choice is fine but if it were my 5 year old, I’d definitely have her wear one of them if I wasn’t there.

  12. My 8 & 10 yr old are special need were taking swimming lessons before Pandemic with an excellent coach. We are getting ready to go on vacation. Would a life vest be appropriate in a swimming pool @ a resort.

    • A swim vest will be more comfortable, less bulky, and should provide enough buoyancy, but if you feel more comfortable in having them in a life vest, then I would go for it. I’ve seen the occasional child with with a life vest at hotel or even community swimming pools. Nothing inappropriate about it.

  13. Hi I have a 2 1/2-year-old and a 4 1/2 year-old both around 45 pounds. Some basic kicking skills but not able to swim on their own at all. We are heading to the beach this week, what would you recommend for them?


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