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Life Jacket Regulations for Children

October 2, 2023

children's life jacket regulations infographic

Life jacket rules for children are just as binding as those for adults. Although it can be tempting to think that children might be free from boating regulations, both state and federal laws protect infants’ and children’s safety in the water with specific life jacket regulations. Failure to respect these rules could lead to tragic accidents, or at the very least, heavy fines.

Get ready to have fun on the water by learning about life jacket regulations for children!

What age do you have to wear a life jacket?

According to the federal boating safety regulations developed by the United States Coast Guard, all children under age 13 must wear a USCG-approved life jacket at all times while on the deck of a moving vessel. Exceptions apply if the boat is not underway, or if the child is below deck or in an enclosed cabin. Federal life jacket laws apply to all types of boats, with specific rules according to the boat size and class. To be sure you are following these laws accurately, take a moment to review the parts of a boat.

Life jacket rules for children are also sometimes regulated at the state-level. If the state where you are boating has specific life jacket laws, you must follow these laws. The federal laws do not apply within states that have their own boating laws. Federal laws only apply in states that do not have their own boating safety regulations.

State life jacket laws for children may include more than just basic regulations. Check out these pages for some general state-specific life jacket rules:

What types of life jackets can children wear?

Children cannot wear inflatable PFDs in any state. Inflatable water toys, rafts and air mattresses are also not considered safe PFDs.

Children can only wear foam life jackets. Foam life jackets have labels to indicate which activities they can be used for, and who can wear them. These labels also indicate whether the PFD is USCG-approved. It’s not a matter of comfort, but of safety: life jackets that are the wrong size or design will not protect the wearer.

Always choose a children’s life jacket that is:

  • United States Coast Guard-approved
  • Suited to your chosen water activity
  • The right size
  • Made for children

Check the label on the life jacket to see if it is suitable for an infant or child. The label will also indicate the following:

The type of activity the life jacket can be used for

Old life jacket labels categorize PFDs according to Type. These labels clearly indicate what the life jacket can be used for with the phrase ‘intended use’.

Children can wear PFDs in the Type I, II and III categories, depending on your intended activity. This classification system is currently being phased out, but PFDs that still use labels according to Type may be fine to use if they are in good working condition. Children who cannot swim should wear a Type II vest, as these have a greater buoyancy than Type III. It may be tempting to wear a Type III life jacket because they allow more freedom, but this design offers less buoyancy and must be used with caution.

New life jacket labels feature simple icons and less text. If a life jacked is not suitable for a specific activity, an icon will show that activity crossed out.

Life jacket size

It is extremely important that a child wears a life jacket that is the right size. Never purchase a larger life jacket with the idea that the child will grow into it. Why? A larger life jacket could slip off or be too loose to keep the wearer’s head above water. It is just as important not to use a life jacket that is too small, as it will not provide enough buoyancy.

Check the label to figure out if the life jacket is the right size. Children’s life jacket sizes are determined according to weight (not chest size as for adults). The USCG categorizes children’s life jackets as follows:

  • Infant: less than or equal to 33 pounds
  • Child: Between 33 and 55 pounds
  • Youth: between 55 and 88 pounds

Note that the U.S. Coast Guard does not recommend bringing infants under 18 pounds on a boat. Life jackets for newborns may not perform adequately for babies under this weight.

Life jacket design

Choosing the right life jacket design for a child is very important. Infants and small children should always wear PFDs that have:

  • a grab handle to help in pulling the child out of the water
  • padded head support to keep the wearer’s head above water
  • a crotch strap to keep the PFD from riding up (for children under 50 pounds).


Newer life jacket labels will indicate a buoyancy number between 50 and 275. These numbers are measurements of buoyancy in Newtons. In general, 70 Newtons (the minimum number for USCG approved vests) offers 15 pounds of buoyancy, an appropriate amount for most child and adult wearers.

United States Coast Guard approval

Both old and new life jacket labels will indicate whether the equipment has been approved by the USCG for the specified uses. The label will read ‘USCG approved’ followed by a number.  Never use a life jacket that has not been approved by the USCG.

How to tell if a child’s life jacket fits properly

When choosing a life jacket for an infant or child, you should also consider the following:

  • Different body types float differently and fit into PFDs differently. Check whether the life jacket fits properly by putting it on the child on land, and asking them to lift their arms straight above their head. Now try lifting the shoulders of the PFD. The life jacket should not slip above the child’s chin and ears. If the life jacket seems to fit correctly on land, but rides up or doesn’t work properly in the water, try a different size or design.
  • Children will have different levels of comfort and experience in and around water, and may need more or less support from a PFD.
  • Children will often panic if they fall into the water, so be sure to teach them how to relax and float wearing their PFD in safe, shallow water, before heading out on a vessel. A lifejacket may not function properly and keep the child face up if they are struggling in the water, so this is very important.

Learn all about safe boating with Drive a Boat USA

Drowning is the leading cause of injury death in children aged 1 through 4, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Remember, no matter how well a life jacket functions, it cannot replace adult supervision. Children should always wear correctly-fitting PFDs when they are near or in water as well as when they walking on a dock or on a boat, no matter how good they are at swimming.

Take our boater safety course to obtain your state-specific boat license and learn everything you need to know about boating safely and legally in the US. Remember, life jacket regulations for children are there to protect kids and make sure the whole family can keep enjoying outdoor fun! Contact Drive a Boat USA to learn more, or give the gift of learning about boating safety to a friend or loved one!