Are you headed on vacation, or to the pool with your little ones? With so many baby floaties and toddler floaties on the market, it can be hard to know that the best swim float is for kids. Bringing the ‘wrong’ swim floatie on your trip is a mistake you just don’t want to make (from experience!). Before we discovered the best floatie for our toddler, we spent many a vacation suffering from a clingy toddler who had all of the sudden decided he was AFRAID OF ALL WATER. After seven days straight of being held to for dear life, we knew we needed to find something that was going to give our little one some confidence in the water! If you are headed to the water with your little ones check out my suggestions here for the best swim floaties for babies and toddlers.
We’ve tried so many different baby floaties and swim vests for toddlers over the years, and we’ve now finally found the best floaties around! In this post, I’m going to cover our favorite toddler and baby floats, and also review some of the important differences between a toddler lifejacket, baby life jacket, swim vest, and ‘toddler floatie’.
Life jacket, Swim Vest, Pool Floatie: What’s the difference?
A pool floatie or swim vest is NOT the same as a baby or toddler life jacket. Lifejackets or PFDs (personal flotation devices) are lifesaving devices that are meant to keep your head above water if (God-forbid) you were ever in trouble. Life jackets keep you and your kids safe in the event of an on-water emergency and have many features to keep even toddlers safe in the water.
In fact, life jackets specifically, are meant to be able to turn a person from the face-down position over to their back in the water. PFD’s (personal flotation devices) do not have this same feature and are only designed to keep you afloat. A good baby or toddler life jacket is absolutely what you need if you are going on a boat or watercraft as they keep you and your family safe.
If you are going to be on any type of watercraft I absolutely recommend that you ensure that your child is wearing a lifejacket. Lifejackets will save your life in the case of emergency and water is certainly not a place where you want to take any risks.
Please visit Red Cross to read more about Canadian standards for life jackets or the US Coast Guard lifejacket facts if you are in the US. In both of these countries, if a floatation device is approved, it is clearly marked on the inside of the jackets with a weight and chest size approval. Look for approval by the US Coast Guard (or Canadian Coast Guard/Transport Canada if in Canada). You will need to see this approval to know that you have a safe lifejacket for your kids and for yourself!
So, what’s a kids floatie?
Life vests, baby floaties, toddler floaties, swim-aids, puddle jumpers, and other flotation devices all have some material that is meant to help you stay afloat. Whether these devices are ALSO lifejackets depend on the specific product. In general, if it is not an approved lifejacket or PFD these will NOT save your life if you are at risk of drowning. They are simply an aid to make swimming easier. The difference between a swim vest and a floatie is related to the design. Swim vests are just as they sound, vests which give some extra floatation, whereas many toddler floaties often have an armband type design.
Swim vests for toddlers or other floatation devices can still be GREAT for little ones who are learning to swim but its important that an adult is still ALWAYS supervising kids with pool floaties on. Don’t use these on boats. The danger in the water can happen in a matter of seconds.
Will toddler floaties prevent my child from learning to swim?
Some parents wonder if using a swim vest or a floatie will prevent your toddler from learning basic swimming skills early on. I personally did not find that this was the case with my kids. Using a floatie early on got my kids comfortable in the water. They got used to having their face in the water. They learned how to float (with and without the floatie) because they were very comfortable in the water.
It is true that my kids’ love for water means I have to be extra cautious monitoring my kids when we are around any water. Being comfortable in the water can certainly give kids a false sense of confidence. When we are near a pool I do not take my eyes off of my kids. Drowning can happen in just a few seconds, and it’s imperative to watch young kids closely around the water. My youngest son needs to have his puddle jumper on at all times when we are at a friends house who has a pool. I also enrolled my kids in swimming lessons early. It’s never too early to learn the basic skills!
The Best Toddler Floatie: The Puddle Jumper
Hands down the only toddler floatie that you need is a puddle jumper! Seriously, if we forgot our puddle jumper on vacation we would probably order amazon same day shipping just to get one at our hotel! These are absolutely the best swim floats for toddlers, and are perfect for most kids age 2 and up (it is rated between 30-50lbs).
What makes the puddle jumper so great is the design. These upgraded water wings have a genius chest strap that brings your toddler’s face up and out of the water. What do toddlers hate about the water? Getting their eyes wet!! Once my son realized he wasn’t going to be gulping water when he used this thing he was sold
Is it approved?
In the US, the coast guard has actually approved this as a ‘learn to swim’ type V lifejacket. In Canada, the puddle jumper is considered a swim aid (aka it is not approved as a toddler life jacket and shouldn’t be what you use on a boat!)
With the puddle jumper, my 3-year-old son can swim completely independently. He enters and exits the water, kicks, and paddles and this year even started really dunking his head with some epic pool jumps! The fact that my son is now fearless around the pool DEFINITELY means I have to keep an extra eye on him at all times. When we are on vacation he does NOT take the puddle jumper off when we are by the water.
Puddle Jumper was the ‘original’ but there are now a few puddle jumper spinoffs that are getting rave reviews from some of my friends. In particular, the Body Glove version below addresses the concern that some kids might be able to wiggle out of a puddle jumper by having a vest. These may also be worthwhile checking out but I haven’t tried them personally:
This toddler floatie has a similar design to the original, with an added feature of a safety vest. The safety vest makes it more difficult for kids to slip out of the vest. It also comes in some super cute patterns that your toddler will love. I have several friends who own this model and give it rave reviews. It likely comes down to personal preference regarding the design and style.
Made by puddle jumper, this combines the original toddler floatie with a padded swimsuit. I’m not sure if the extra bulk is worth the extra space in this model. My main concern with this swimsuit is that I don’t think it does the same job of bringing the chest up that the original does. The fact that the original has the chest strap that comfortably keeps the kids face out of the water is one of the biggest selling features for the original puddle jumper.
The Best Floaties for Babies: SwimWays Sun Canopy Baby Boat
For babies under 30 lbs, the options for baby swim floats are a bit more limited. We tend to use floaties for babies that have a canopy, as for us the most important thing is keeping our babies out of the sun and protected from sunburn. The SwimWays Sun Canopy Baby Float is a popular option that folds up very compact.
We have also tried a few inflatable baby floaties like this one that have been great. The nice thing about an inflatable floatie for babies is that these pack super well on vacation. We bought our two baby floaties when our first son was 8 months old and they have lasted three years and many trips back and forth on vacation. Our youngest is now 1 year old and still loves to use this type of baby flotation device.
Baby floatie means direct supervision needed!
Baby floating devices are absolutely not rated as a lifejacket or PFD. These devices all need DIRECT (hands-on) supervision. The main appeal of these devices is simply to be able to let your little one feel a little bit ‘free’ in the water and allow them to splash around a bit.
My son loved to ‘zoom’ around in his floatie when we were on vacation in Mexico and loved to be able to splash the water with his hands. Having a baby floatie give you a little bit of shade for your little one and a chance to have a hand free in the pool.
Other floaties for babies:
These floaties for babies have recently become popular. I have not tried one myself as my kids are now both in armband floaties. This baby floatie allows your infant to be in a more natural swimming position. Reading through some online reviews, I’ve noticed a lot of reviewers complaining that it’s easy for babies to slip through this design. As I mentioned above, all floaties for babies require direct 1 to 1 supervision! It’s important not to let a baby floatie give you a false sense of security.
Neck Floaties for Babies: Are they safe? Nope!
I can’t say I’ve gotten into the latest odd trend of these baby neck floaties, that seem umm, VERY dangerous. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics chimed in with a warning. A few products have also been recalled. Although seeing babies using the neck floaties looks pretty cool, I won’t be taking any chances with one of these devices.
At the end of the day, the message is still the same. Babies need hands-on supervision when they are using any type of floatie. A floatie for babies is not a baby life jacket and could give parents a false sense of security in the water.
The Best Kids Floatie: The Swim Fin
After swimming a lot this year at our local gym, our four-year-old is actually starting to get quite comfortable! Although the puddle jumper is still our go-to when we don’t want to worry, I did want to find something that would encourage my little guy to practice his swimming in a more realistic way. I had heard about this shark fin swimming aid and decided to give it a try.
The shark fin is definitely a ‘swim aid’. Use this with DIRECT hands-on supervision if your child does not know how to swim. It is great for giving kids a little boost in the water who already have the basics of swimming down. In a pinch, it’s similar to a pool noodle tied around the waist or the chest. We like the shark fin, and let’s be honest, it’s also adorable!!
The big difference I notice with this compared to the puddle jumper is that it does not bring up the chest and head. You have to work to paddle and float to keep your head above water which is great for teaching swimming fundamentals. For our son, it gave him a huge boost when he first learned to swim.
We only ended up using the shark fin on a few occasions because as soon as my son got the hang of keeping his head above water, he wanted to swim ‘all by himself.’
Runner-Up: Otter Wings
Otter wings is a cool product that has an interesting take on your typical armband floaties. These upgraded water wings have some safety features to make sure that the armbands stay on while swimming. The inflatable armbands actually clip on to the swimsuit so that there is no chance that they will fall off in the water. We tried these out, and I loved the design! They are certainly handy for travel as they deflate easily and pack up small in your luggage.
The Best Toddler Life Jacket: Hyperlite PFD
The most important thing you should look for is to ensure that your toddler life jacket is ACTUALLY a certified lifesaving device. Again, check the label and make sure you look for approval in the country you live in. We have two toddler lifejackets at home that we use whenever we go on a boat with our little ones. We certainly don’t take any risks in this regard.
In choosing a toddler lifejacket, fit and style are probably the most important features. You want to make sure that you choose a lifejacket that fits with your child’s weight and chest measurements. For our son, we went with a hyperlite pfd that was made of a soft neoprene material. This lifejacket was comfortable for my toddler and it wasn’t riding up too much to bug him.
It’s probably a good idea to get your toddler used to swimming with a lifejacket on before a big boating trip. The first time my son swam with a life jacket on he was NOT impressed. The feeling was a lot different than the puddle jumper and he had to work to keep from flipping over. It took about 5 minutes of coaxing (and bribing!) before he was finally comfortable.
The Best Baby Life Jacket: O’Brien Baby Safe Infant Vest
In Canada, there are no baby life jackets which are rated for babies under 20lbs. You should always be holding your small baby if you are traveling by boat. In the US, the US coast guard has several infant lifejackets which are approved for infants less than 30 lbs. I have an O’Brien infant life jacket that I actually scored at a local thrift store!
The unique design is made to keep your infants head above water in a ‘back float’ type position. We have only used it once, as we don’t tend to be big boaters. But I feel great about having it on hand in case we need it.
General tips for having fun in the water:
Some kids are timid in the water if they haven’t had a lot of exposure to a pool or a beach. We have found lots of ways to make swimming fun and exciting so that our kids are excited to try out their floaties and have fun in the water:
- Practice jumps: silly jumps, big jumps, mega splash jumps, JUMPs are lots of fun for kids
- Go on a treasure hunt: searching for treasure in the water is a great way to get kids to try putting their face in the water. Grab a set of these pool treasures and help your kids hunt for jewels in the bottom of the pool
- Blow bubbles! Blowing bubbles is a fundamental swimming skill that kids can learn from such an early age. Getting comfortable having their face in the water is an important step for mastering swimming later on.
Stay Safe and Have Fun!
I hope this post helps you to get out and enjoy the water with your little ones this summer. Since we’ve found the ‘right’ floaties for our kids going to the beach and the pool is always a blast. Don’t forget to also invest in the best ‘swimming aid’, SWIMMING LESSONS! Being a strong swimmer is number #1 on the ‘must-do’ list for my kids.
Now that you are ready to float, be sure to check out some of my other posts for more ideas:
- What to pack for the beach with kids for some of the best ‘kid-approved’ beach gear
- The best age to travel with a baby for my ultimate guide to when bringing a baby on vacation is ‘just right’
- How to vacation with your kids (and not hate your life) for keeping cool and ‘tear free’ on vacations with kids
If you have a favorite floatie that didn’t make the list, drop me a line in the comments! I will definitely check it out!