puddle jumper jacket on boatCoast Guard approved Puddle Jumper Life Jackets can help toddlers and kids learn to swim faster – but their use on a boat may be limited

If you have a toddler or young kid learning how to swim, then you have no doubt seen Stearns Kids Puddle Jumper Life Jackets. But many boaters wonder if they are actually a good life jacket alternative for boating.

We have been using our puddle jumper on the boat for years. Although it is US Coast Guard Approved, we believe that it should be used in certain circumstances on the boat – like anchoring out and swimming. Due to design’s ability to be easily removed, a standard life jacket should still be used when underway.

UPDATED: Also see the new “Paddle Pals” by Body Glove featuring a similar design but safer built-in vest. See end of post for more details.


Using Puddle Jumper Jackets on a Boat

puddle jumper back strapThe puddle jumper is designed to give kids more confidence in the water by combining the security of floaties or “swimmie” arms with a flotation pad that goes across the chest that attaches to the flotation arms. One large strap is fastened in the back with a secure clasp (using a clasp similar to the ones found on regular life jackets).

The Stearns Puddle Jumper clearly states that it is “US Coast Guard Approved when worn on boats”. It is meant for a child 30-50 lbs – perfect for about 2-4 year old kids (or even up to 5 if your kid is smaller and lighter than most).

We started using the Stearns Kids Puddle Jumper Life Jacket with our first daughter when she was about 2 ½ years old. She wasn’t quite ready to swim at first, but by the end of that summer she was practically doing laps in the pool at our marina. We also used it on the boat when anchored out in the river. I really think it’s one of the best ways for young kids and toddlers to quickly learn how to swim.

The reason why it works so great is because the design helps to lift kid’s chins out of the water, unlike a regular life jacket that tends to ride up and force kids to float more on their back. The Puddle Jumper lets kids lean forward more for to encourage swimming. It also offers more stability than a regular life jacket – and definitely better than just floatie arms.

The jacket is a huge confidence booster for kids, which is important when they are learning how to swim. It was amazing watching her gain independence in the water.

Our Puddle Jumper has also held up amazingly well over the years. Our first daughter wore it from about 2 ½ to almost 5 years old, and our second daughter has now started wearing it the summer she turned two. So we have had the Puddle Jumper for 4 years now and it is still in great shape.

Here’s a video demo of her swimming with her Stearns Puddle Jumper Life Jacket:

Puddle Jumper vs Youth or Toddler Life Jacket

toddler life jacket with loopWhile the Puddle Jumper has been great for our girls in the pool and anchored out, we still choose to use a regular toddler life jacket when our boat is underway… and even walking on the dock at our marina. As a parent there are several safety concerns that I have about using the Puddle Jumper in place of a regular life jacket all the time around a boat.

First, the toddler life jackets that are Coast Guard approved have a heads-up flotation feature that I feel is important for little kids if they were to fall in the water.

Second, although a Puddle Jumper Jacket fits securely and I don’t worry about the back strap coming off, there are times when the floatie slides down the arms – but only when out of the water. When in the water, the sleeves stay up just fine because the water pushes it up. But when walking around on a boat or a dock it can slide down if your child is younger or on the slim side.

Finally, I prefer the safety loop at the top attached to the top of the heads-up flotation feature on regular toddler life jackets when walking down the dock. It’s an extra safety feature to be able to hold onto the loop and keep little kids from wander too close to the edge of a dock.

Deluxe vs. Basic Puddle Jumper Jackets

There is a slight difference in price and quality with the Puddle Jumper Jackets labeled as “deluxe” and “basic”. Deluxe is a little more money (though not much) and definitely seem to be better quality.

puddle jumper deluxeI chose to pay a few dollars extra to buy the jacket labeled as “Puddle Jumper Deluxe” because they have more padding across the chest (making a difference in the buoyancy for kids) and they just seem to be better quality. And I have been able to do a side by side comparison with another kid that appeared to have the basic Puddle Jumper jacket. Our deluxe puddle jumper has lasted for YEARS and multiple kids!

Both versions come in a lot of cute styles with age appropriate characters for boys and girls.

Our red ladybug Puddle Jumper Jacket (shown in these pictures) was purchased about 4 years ago but you can still find similar styles and designs (if not same ladybug design we had).

3D Puddle Jumper
3D Puddle Jumper

In addition to the regular styles, they now have 3D Puddle Jumper Designs with embossed animals like a dolphin or turtle that are really cute.

Puddle Jumper Suit
Puddle Jumper Bathing Suit

There is also a Puddle Jumper suit that has a flotation bathing suit attached to the Puddle Jumper – though I haven’t personally used this one I hear it works very well for kids learning to swim.

As a mom, I highly recommend this product for any kid learning to swim… and as a boater I think it can be a great Coast Guard approved swimming aid at a boat. But as I mentioned, my preference is to swap it for a standard youth life jacket when cruising or walking on a dock.

NEW: Body Glove Paddle Pal Life Jacket

There is a new product on the market that I think solves many of the concerns I have with the Puddle Jumper. Similar in style to the standard Puddle Jumper, the Body Glove Paddle Pal Life Jacket features a built-in vest, eliminating the concern of the Puddle Jumper easily sliding down when not in the water.

Here’s the description from Body Glove:

Paddle Pals is the safest US Coast Guard approved learn-to-swim aid for pools, lakes, and beaches. USCG approved Life Jacket with attached arm bands for teaching kids to swim. Safety shoulder harness prevents the vest from sliding off during use and keeps child from removing life jacket without help. Quick-release rear safety buckle is adjustable for a great fit. Durable polyester material and multi-panel design for superior comfort. Approved as a Type III Childs PFD for recreational boating. Child (30-50lbs).

Purchase Paddle Pal Life Jackets on Amazon ($49 and up) in a variety of styles for boys and girls.




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Diane Seltzer

Founder at BoaterKids.com
Diane is the founder of BoaterKids.com as well as the boating lifestyle site MyBoatLife.com. Active in the boating industry, Diane is the marketing director for SureShade, maker of patented retractable boat shade systems, and founder of Marine Marketing Tools, a collaborative site for sharing marine marketing best practices. Diane is also author of the children's book The Amazing Adventures of Boat Girl.

8 Comments

  1. This is the most helpful post I’ve read on these jackets. Thank you very much. What size vest is your daughter wearing in the photo where they’re walking along the dock? The sizing is confusing. I have a petite toddler (24lbs), and I’m not sure whether to get her the infant or child size.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Rebecca – I try to post based on my experience with my kids! If your toddler is 24 lbs I would definitely recommend a life jacket that is sized as less than 30 lbs – don’t worry if it says “infant” or “toddler” its the weight that is most important. The jacket in the photo above is the Stearn’s Classic Life Jacket (now comes in red or blue) – its the last one listed on this page: http://www.boaterkids.com/infant-and-baby-life-jackets/

    Hope that helps!

  3. haha, “It is meant for a child 30-50 lbs – perfect for about 2-4 year old kids (or even up to 5 if your kid is smaller and lighter than most).” YEA, my 7 year old still only weighs 45 lbs!

  4. This was just what I was looking for, thanks for all the great info! My 3 1/2 y/o is using the puddle jumper, I’m wondering if maybe the Body Glove Paddle Pals would work better to help him move his arms to swim better? Also was wondering what I could use for my 18lb 1year old? Do they have anything for that age and weight? Thanks so much…

    1. I think the new Body Glove paddle pals seem like a good option if your child is in & out of the water a lot, because there is less chance of it sliding down on them. Although I haven’t tried them for my kids (because they weren’t available when they were smaller) I would think that the vest attachment might give them a big more buoyancy – maybe giving them the ability to lift their arms out of the water a bit more… although just a hunch on that 😉

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