Few tests that Practical Sailor has carried out recently have so exasperated our testers as our comparison of infants’ and children’s life jackets. No wonder 2-year-olds loathe these things. In our opinion, too many of these jackets are either too expensive, cheaply made, or poor-fitting. Vest makers seem to be paying more attention to cute details or cutting production costs than focusing on what matters: proper flotation and quality construction.
With the exception of four life jackets—those by Mustang Survival, Sospenders, and MTI—in the large test field of 14, we were disappointed with what we found. Even among our favorites, we found no jacket that represented the best of everything.
Keep in mind that fit is such a key element in the function of these devices that our own conclusions regarding fit, comfort, and flotation may not apply to a particular infant or toddler. The U.S. Coast Guard is explicit in this regard, pointing out that since infants and children come in many sizes and shapes, PFDs must be tested immediately after purchase. You should test the PFD in a swimming pool with the infant or child who will be wearing the PFD. Just because it works for one infant or child does not mean it will work for another in the same manner. Check for proper weight range, comfortable fit, and especially a stable, face-up position in the water. Infants and children are difficult to float face-up because of the distribution of body weight and the tendency for them to struggle or attempt to climb out of the water. Some float best in one style of vest, while others will float better in another. If one does not work well, try another style. Remember: Never leave an infant or child unattended on a dock, on a boat, or in-the-water, even if they have on a PFD.
Here’s PS’s take on the fundamental requirements of a good Type II life jacket for an infant or small child:
• Sufficient flotation. The child should be able to stay afloat on his back and be stable with his head above the water. The U.S. Coast Guard set 7 pounds of flotation as the minimum standard for Type II PFDs for children under 50 pounds. For Type I hybrids, the USCG-approved minimum is 9 pounds uninflated and 15 pounds inflated. The placement of flotation is as important as the amount. The only way to check this is to test it in the water.
• Proper fit. Check the neck and sleeves in particular. An oversized neck is unsafe, but if it’s too tight, your child will be miserable. In the store, secure all straps (including the crotch strap) snugly on your child and lift him by the shoulder straps to check the fit on land. The child’s chin or ears should not slip down through the vest. Loose sleeves make the jacket easier to get on and off, but they should not be so wide that your child could slip out if he struggles. If your child weighs less than 20 pounds, you may find most jackets are simply too big.
• Durable construction. The jackets’ outer shells are usually lightweight nylon, with three or four compartments filled with closed-cell foam for flotation. Any zippers should be large and easy to operate. Check all straps, particularly the lifting straps, for rugged stitching, preferably of a color in contrast with the strap. • Highly visible color and reflective patch. All of the life jackets we tested came in red or yellow. Only one, the Sospenders (while inflated) has a reflective patch. PS recom-mends putting reflective strips on the head and chest panels of these jackets, even if you don’t plan to boat at night with your children.
• Crotch strap and lifting strap. All of the vests we tested had these important features, but only a few featured a lifting strap in a highly visible color. Do not use these jackets without securing the crotch strap. They will not work as designed.
WHAT WE TESTED
The test was limited to Type II or Type I hybrid life jackets for children under 50 pounds. Type II jackets are designed to turn some unconscious wearers face-up, and Type I hybrids, when inflated, can turn most unconscious wearers face up, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The 14-jacket field included samples from five manufacturers: Body Glove, a California water sports specialty company; Kent, an Ohio sports equipment company (one Kent life jacket was re-branded by Boater’s World, and another re-branded as On The Edge, or OTE); Mustang Survival, a Canadian company; MTI Adventurewear, a Massachusetts company that specializes in paddling accessories; and Stearns, the Ohio-based life jacket giant. Two Stearns jackets were re-branded as West Marine products, and one re-branded as Seafit. Stearns also makes Sospenders products.
Each Coast Guard-approved jacket was labeled for infants or small children within one of three approved weight ranges (less than 30 pounds, 30 to 50 pounds, or less than 50 pounds). In PS’s opinion, except for the 30-50 pound range, these mandated categories are too broad. They can be misleading to consumers and probably inhibit the development of better-fitting life jackets for infants and small children.
The most notable differences in the jackets were the fasteners (clips only vs. clips and zippers), and in the way flotation was distributed. A jacket without a zipper is easier to don and will have a chest strap that may provide a snugger fit at the chest. Our testers preferred clips —try zipping a kid in a seaway—but the clip-only jackets fell short in other evaluation points, and so fell out of favor.
Flotation distribution varied at the head and back. Head flotation follows three approaches to design—one foam piece, two divided foam sections, or three divided foam sections, with different shapes and thicknesses. Our testers felt that head supports with either the thick single-piece design or the two-section design generally provided the best combination of comfort, flotation, and stability in the water for the infants, while head supports with thinner flotation or three sections were more comfortable out of the water. Some jackets added foam between the shoulder blades. All of the jackets—save the Canadian-made Mustang—are at least partially made in China. Although several of our jackets appeared to be only re-branded versions from the same maker with little modification, we wanted to see whether our test would reveal any subtle differences.
HOW WE TESTED
Two PS testers rated and reviewed the PFDs with the help of five children: two 18-month-olds weighing 20 to 30 pounds and three 4-year-old boys weighing 32 to 35 pounds (two of them twins). Each vest was donned by at least two child testers who fit its weight rating. Adult testers checked ease of donning, and the older children were asked to don the vests themselves. Vests were then rated for ease of donning, comfort, and fit out of the water based on the children’s comments (or reaction) and the adult testers’ observations.
In-water testing was done in a salt-water pool. Adult testers observed the fit and buoyancy of the vest in the water. Additionally, each child attempted to swim both on their stomach and on their back. Testers also noted each child’s stability while floating face-up. (The older children had all mastered the skill of floating on their backs, so testers could detect no clear differences in the stability of the larger vests.) We threw the older boys into the water to see whether the jackets stayed put. The mothers denied our request to toss the infants. All the larger jackets passed this test. The twins, with near-identical weight and sizes, allowed testers to observe different jackets side by side while being worn in the water and out.
After the test, we hung the jackets on a clothesline in the Florida sun and rain for two months. We then stored them together, still damp, in a black plastic bag for one month to see what we could grow.
Our recommendations are based on test ratings, buoyancy, weather resistance, and resistance to mildew. Price was a minor consideration in the final ratings.
BODY GLOVE INFANT MEDALIST
The Body Glove Infant Medalist, a clip-fastened jacket, is similar to two jackets from Kent (see below), but it has better construction details and is rated for a child weighing less than 30 pounds (the Kent is rated for less than 50 pounds). It has the standard three flotation sections (one head and two chest), with a mesh drain for the chest floats. The thick head support provides good flotation and fair stability. Although it has the bulkiest design of the test products, there is no flotation on the back.
The arms were tight on the bigger child testers, and all the testers were apparently bothered by tightness around the neck. This was the only jacket with two crotch straps, a safety feature we liked.
Bottom Line: This was the best constructed jacket of this style. It provides good flotation, but the fit and comfort rated only Fair.
BOATER’S WORLD/KENT 2PW
The Kent jackets are nearly identical to the Body Glove. The differences: The Kent construction is simpler; the vest is rated for a child less than 50 pounds, and it has only a single crotch strap. For no apparent reason other than the color (red), our child testers preferred the Boater’s World
Bottom Line: This is an inexpensive, relatively uncomfortable jacket that provided good flotation for all our test subjects.
ON THE EDGE
Made by Kent (model 2013), this zipper-clasp jacket is sold through Boater’s World as the OTE Dots Infant jacket. It has two head floats, but no back flotation. It was the smallest and hardest to don—the small zipper gave testers trouble even without an infant in it—but it provided ample flotation and good stability, and it was comfortable in the water.
Bottom Line: In our opinion, the tiny, troublesome zipper spoils an otherwise good jacket for smaller infants.
Though it conforms to Canadian transport laws, this jacket is not U.S. Coast Guard certified. We included it in our test because it had several novel features that PS liked and because Mustang plans to introduce a similar web-backed jacket to the U.S. market next year. It has six float sections (two chest, one back, and three head) and is rated for infants 20-30 pounds. Features include a mesh back and pocket, a neoprene-lined neck, and a thinner tri-fold head support. The mesh back and rounded neck, and a thinner tri-fold head support. The mesh back and rounded neck made this jacket very comfort-able on land, but in the water, the infants seemed less stable on their backs than in the MTI.
The yellow panels on the Mustang MV-1340 mildewed worse than any other test jacket. We reported this to Mustang, and the company was obviously very concerned about this finding. Company executives said that a mildew problem had cropped up previously in their jackets, but two years ago, a new system was put in place to correct it. They said they had not had any complaints in two years. Mustang is investigating the matter to determine the origin and date of the fabric of the PS test jackets. The company is making a sincere effort to resolve this problem.
Bottom Line: We look forward to seeing the U.S. version next year. Although this Mustang did not float our infants as well as similar designs, like the MTI, it offers hope to those who rank comfort as a priority.
This well-constructed, zipper-clip jacket has four float sections (two chest, one back, two head). The thick bifold head flap provides good support. Our child testers found it uncomfortable on land, particularly when seated. The jacket, however, seemed to float our test subjects bet-ter than the MV-1340. And blue is a bad choice for a lifting strap, in our opinion.
This jacket had the same mildew problem as the MV-1340, with most of the stains on the yellow fabric.
Bottom Line: In terms of flotation, this jacket was more impressive than the MV-1340, but it was less comfortable.
Made for toddlers weighing 30 to 50 pounds, the MV-3155 is the same basic design as the MV-3150, but with a tri-section head support and no flotation in the back. The three-float head support is broader and thicker than that of the 1340. This made it slightly more bothersome on land, but the jacket performed better than the 1340 in the water. Mildew also was evident on this jacket.
Bottom Line: The well-made 3155 is a PS recommended choice for toddlers in the 30- to 50-pound range, although it is not as comfortable as the MTI.
MTI BAYBEE 201-I
Similar to Mustang’s MV-3155, with four float sections (including two panels in the head support), this jacket was the star of the infant float test and had the best combined comfort scores.
The neck and sleeve designs are worth noting. The neck front has a slight V for more breathing room. The back is cut away at the shoulders, allowing more freedom of movement. It was slightly large on our 18-month-olds, but not so large as to hamper its performance in the water. In our view, the lifting strap should be longer and fixed so the ends are farther apart on the jacket. The No. 10 YKK zipper made donning much easier than the smaller zippers.
Bottom Line: The MTI is PS’s Best Choice for infants and worth the extra $10. This is the only jacket in which our infant tester clearly felt comfortable floating on his back. Although rated for only 30 pounds, it also floated our smallest 4-year-old adequately.
A hybrid vest with both foam flotation and an automatic inflatable chamber, the Sospenders 12ACH had by far the most buoyancy of any vest tested. Rated for children 30 to 50 pounds, it has three sections of foam: two in the front, one on the chest, and one in the back. Despite its lack of a head flotation section while uninflated, it is more cumbersome and less comfortable out of the water than the MTI 201-C or Stearns 3303. When inflated, it becomes a traditional horseshoe-shaped life jacket, and provides so much buoyancy—almost too much—that our largest child tester’s head bobbed high above the water. It was a startling and uncomfortable experience. The accompanying CO2 cylinder and automatic-inflation valve are mounted on the right front, while the left front holds the oral inflation tube and a whistle. A front zipper—that’s too small, in our opinion—locks the vest in place; an adjustable strap that runs around the vest at waist level provides additional security.
The fabric resisted weather and mildew better than any jacket in our test. Wide sleeves allow free movement and make it easy to don. However, the flaps securing the inflation chamber tend to fall open.
This is an expensive jacket and will not be worth the extra money if it does not see daily use and the inflation chamber is not properly maintained. Because of its superior flotation, PS recommends the 12ACH, but the vest will be a hot, cumbersome thing to wear in the tropics.
Bottom Line: Serious offshore sailors who plan night crossings in all weather and are committed to maintaining an auto-inflation systems should consider this option.
STEARNS 3303/SEAFIT 3303/ WEST MARINE 3303
Marketed as the infant and child’s “heads-up boating jacket” by Stearns, this jacket is re-branded as West Marine and Seafit under the same model number. It is a clip-only jacket rated for up to 50 pounds. It is similar to the Kent 2PW, except it has additional flotation in the back, and the head flotation is broader and flatter so that it flops back over the shoulders, where it won’t bother the child while he is seated or turning his head. The infants were fairly stable floating on their backs in this vest, but the low head freeboard bothered them. The bigger boys found the neck and arms tighter than the MTI, but otherwise liked the freedom of movement it allowed them compared to others.
Bottom Line: The Seafit was top in this bunch, if only because its lift strap was bright yellow (as opposed to grey, blue, or black) and the clips were contrasting colors, allowing a quick check to see they were secured.
STEARNS/WEST MARINE 3001
Similar to the MTI jackets, this vest’s sleeves are cut away at the back to allow freer arm movement. The 3001 does not have the back flotation of the MTI, and the head support is a broad, flat, single section. The infants whined and grabbed their ears while floating on their backs in this design, which seemed to catch and pool water around the ears. The bright, day-glow orange Stearns was more visible than the red-and-blue West Marine, although it faded slightly in the weather and picked up some mildew. In our opinion, more jackets should incorporate Stearns’ longer lift strap, which makes for a larger target.Bottom Line: The 3001 is a mediocre jacket with some features—day-glow color and longer lifting strap—that others should take note of.
MTI has clearly put a lot of thought into its infant jacket, and PS believes the Baybee 201-I is the best option for most infants that fall within its weight range. Key details like a No. 10 zipper, an elastic loop to keep the zipper in place, and contrasting threads at the lifting straps that allow for inspection are just some of the subtle improvements that set these jackets apart. We’d like to see a version of this jacket for 30- to 50-pound children with just clips.
For 30- to 50-pound children, Mustang’s MV-3155 is clearly the best choice. It was the only jacket in this size that approached the MTI in terms of comfort and flotation.Remember that body shape and size can greatly impact comfort and flotation. If the MTI 201-I does not seem to float your infant in a stable position, consider the Mustang 3150. If you plan to be taking the jacket on and off frequently and want a jacket that is simply the easiest to don, try the Body Glove or the Seafit 3303. For serious offshore duty, the Sospenders 12ACH, as long as it inflates (no small caveat), would offer the best chance of survival and recovery in rough seas.
BOATER’S WORLD, 877/690-0004 boatersworld.com
BODY GLOVE, 310/374-3441 bodyglove.com
MTI, 800/783-4684, mtiadventurewear.comm
MUSTANG, 360/676-1782, mustangsurvival.com
STEARNS, 800/333-1179, stearnsinc.com
WEST MARINE, 800/685-4838, westmarine.com