When it comes to swimming vests for toddlers, there are a lot of different styles and options, and they all have their benefits. Additionally, the way we use toddler swim vests can vary from setting to setting, and as children get older.
So how can parents choose the best toddler swim vest?
With a little research, and understanding their different uses.
Both of my children started swim lessons at around 14 months, and with the exception of a break during the early Covid era, my now 3- and 5-year-old girls have been doing them ever since.
But we also do a lot of beach vacations, and the needs change when you’re looking at recreational and/or travel use.
Here is everything that I’ve learned from discussions with swim teachers and over years of experience, to help you choose the best swim vest for toddlers.
What are swim vests for toddlers?
First, let’s talk about terminology.
A toddler swim vest is not a toddler life jacket. It is not a life-saving floatation device. And it is absolutely not a substitute for an adult being in the water with a child.
The difference between a swim vest and a life jacket is this: a life jacket is certified to keep it’s wearer’s head above water, and a swim vest is not. A swim vest would not be a safe option during activities like boating, for example.
A swim vest is designed to give your child some extra buoyancy, and help them stay afloat with less effort and exhaustive kicking, but it will not guarantee they keep their head out of water.
It is totally possible for a child to get their face under water while wearing a kids swim vest. They won’t go straight down vertically, but a child without enough strength and without water experience could potentially put their face down and legs up and float. And a young enough baby could get stuck like this.
That would never happen with a life vest, which will not allow the wearer to get their head under.
This is why a swim vest is not appropriate for babies or as a substitute for supervision.
Young children, before they learn how to swim properly, are not particularly efficient in the water. To keep their heads above water without any floatation device, they have to work very hard and use a ton of energy.
A good swim vest will allow them to use less effort and focus their energy on the task at hand: either learning effective technique, or playing and having fun. (These tend to often be the exact same thing!)
A good swim vest will not allow your child to float effortlessly and safely. That would be a life jacket.
Benefits of using a swimming vest for toddlers
So why not just give your child a life jacket?
When kids don’t have to work at all to stay up in the water, they don’t learn how to keep themselves afloat. With a swim vest, their bodies naturally begin to find balance, they figure out how to kick their legs and stay upright, and they use their arms in a similar way to how they will when the vest comes off.
Essentially, you are giving them a scaffold to help them learn swim skills while making it a little easier – and much safer.
Because while the swim vest is not going to work like a life vest, it will keep their heads just above water level with minimal effort. They need to work if they don’t want the water right there in their face, but it will keep them where they can breathe (if they aren’t panicking).
When to use a swim vest
Swim vests are great for many situations, but not all.
First, never use a toddler swim vest for a child who has little or no swim experience unless you are right there in the water with them. This is true for life jackets for this age, too – toddlers should just never be alone in the water, regardless of safety gear.
Now for swim lessons. We’ve been to three different swim schools, and each one has had a different philosophy on added floatation.
In one swim school, students used floatation blocks strapped onto their chest and back, gradually reducing the blocks until they were swimming without them. These blocks serve the same purpose as a swim vest – adding some buoyancy until kids develop the strength to hold themselves above water – but without anything that would touch the arms to potentially impact learning proper form.
In another swim school, students used lightweight swim vests like our favorite one, below. They would spend increasingly more time without the vest during a lesson to build their comfort level with swimming without a vest.
In another, students never used floatation devices, even at 18 months. They learned how to swim without assistance from the get-go. My youngest took a long time to get to the point of being ready to swim without the instructor touching her, but once she did, she’s become a fairly strong swimmer at 3 years old without any floatation device.
My point is, there is no one right way to teach a toddler to swim. There are some wrong ways, I’m sure.
What about puddle jumpers?
Why can’t we just throw some puddle jumpers on our kids and stick them in the pool?
Puddle jumpers are the floatation devices that have a thick buoyant piece that straps around the chest, and then big floaties on both arms. Some are made of a life jacket-like foam, while others are plastic inflatables.
Neither of these styles are a life jacket, and again are not a substitute for close adult supervision.
Puddle jumpers are great for play time in the pool, but they inhibit kids from learning proper swim technique. Whereas a vest or front and back floaties adds buoyancy to your child’s center, a puddle jumper holds them up by the arms and chest equally. This does not mimic the way the body naturally wants to float in the water, and it keeps kids from learning to use their arms to keep afloat and balance.
It can be hard for kids who learn to swim in a puddle jumper to transition to swimming without one.
Does that mean that I hate puddle jumpers? No way! I love them for splashing in the pool or at the beach, because they do give my toddler a lot of freedom. I still need to be there in the water, but my 2-year-old can stay perfectly afloat, kick her legs to get around, and have fun splashing without me having to worry much.
But during swim lessons and any time I want to practice real swimming, we go either with the vest or with nothing at all.
If you are looking for the best puddle jumper for toddlers, I really like Stearns. They are the ones you will see most often in the store, and they are made of thick foam instead of needing to be inflated with air. They are also the only puddle jumpers that are approved by the US Coast Guard as a floatation device, similar to life vests. They will definitely keep a kid’s head above water.
While I like the portability of inflatable swim gear, I don’t like the uncomfortable plastic, needing to continually re-blow them back up when they start to leak, and the risk of them popping.
What to look for in a toddler swim vest
Toddler swimming vests are not all created equal. As with all things, there are issues of quality and options that you will want to look for.
First, you will want to choose a well-known brand. Water safety is not somewhere that I am personally willing to compromise with buying a knock-off. That’s not to say that there aren’t good ones made by lesser-known brands, but you’ll definitely want to do some research (and don’t just trust lots of positive reviews on Amazon… they are so often fake).
Secondly, look for vests that have gentle, scratch-free material. Neoprene is a great choice. All swim vests and life jackets will eventually chafe, as you have wet skin rubbing repeatedly against material. But don’t make it worse by choosing a vest with plastic around the arms.
Most importantly, ensure that the vest you choose fits well and is the right type of vest for the level of swimmer that you have. Remember (I know I keep saying it…) these are not life-saving floatation devices and should only be used with close adult supervision by kids who are learning to swim.
What is the best toddler swim vest?
While there is no one best option for all families, there is one that consistently gets the best reviews and seems to be a great fit for many kids. Our family has been extremely happy with the Speedo Begin To Swim. We initially were drawn to it because Speedo is a trusted name and because of all the great reviews. And as we did more research, we decided that it ticks all the boxes that we needed it to.
It is just the right balance of giving kids extra floatation without bobbing them way above the water. We knew we would be using this while teaching our daughters to swim, so we didn’t want too much buoyancy. When my daughter jumps in the pool wearing this, she goes under water and bounces back up, and that’s the way we want it so that she can learn how that feels.
It is made of neoprene and reinforced along all the rub points.
It is foam, instead of inflatable, and built to last.
I also like that the Speedo is shorter than some other toddler swimming vests. It doesn’t cover the stomach, which helps with ease of movement and is more comfortable for my child.
It is pretty compact and easy to travel with, as it is around an inch or so thick and fits easily into our carry-on bag.
We have now owned this swim vest for about 4 years, and while my 5-year-old has graduated to swimming without any float aids, my 3-year-old uses it any time we are playing at the beach or pool (outside of swim lessons). It has gotten a lot of use over the last 4 years, including joining us on many trips, and it shows surprisingly little wear!
For reference, we have the size Medium. Both of my kids are very tall and skinny for their age. The youngest we used it was a little under 2 years old, and it worked but was definitely baggy and needed the safety strap. It fit nicely from about 2.5 years to 4 years. My oldest, at 5, could squeeze into it if she needed, but only because she is so skinny. It wouldn’t be comfortable for her past 4.
Are there any downsides?
We do notice that after a long pool day, our daughter will have chafing where she rubs against the arm holes. I have found the chafing to be worse with any other floatation devices we’ve used (the classic life vests rub my kids raw in like 10 minutes), but it is still something to be aware of.
I have yet to hear of any brand that has solved the chafing problem, but I know some parents find it to be a deal-breaker. Ultimately, wet skin rubbing repeatedly against fabric will have that issue, and for kids spending an hour or more splashing and playing, it’s bound to happen. A rash-guard style swimsuit will help!
We don’t really find the strap to be very helpful, either. When my girls were on the very low-end of the size spectrum for the vest, it did make a difference because the vest was so big it wouldn’t stay put without it. But once they got big enough for the vest to fit snug against them, the strap is just an annoyance. But we just keep it clipped off to the side.
I really don’t have any major complaints about this vest. I can’t honestly compare to any direct competitors of this style of vest (although the direct competitors all look to be knock-offs of the Speedo vest), but I can compare to many different types of floaties, puddle jumpers, and so many different life vests used over the years. The Speedo Begin to Swim has been worlds better than all of them for what we use it for – supervised swim practice and play time.
If you have a toddler learning to swim, and you are looking for the best toddler swim vest that will enhance their fun without slowing down their learning, I hope you have a look at the Speedo Begin to Swim. And even if that is not the one for you, I hope my experiences have helped you narrow down just what to look for that will work for your family!
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Originally published April, 2022. Updated July, 2023.