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A play yard doesn't have to be high on your list of priorities, but it will certainly come in handy--especially when you hit the road. Play yards are usually easy to set up and collapse, giving you a portable, safe space for your baby to rest or play.
Unlike the square playpens your parents may have used, most of today's play yards are often rectangular and may have extras to amuse your baby, including mobiles, detachable toy bars, or entertainment centers that feature music, nature sounds, and/or blinking lights (some activated by remote control).
If you want to use your play yard as a changing station, many come with a changing-table insert or an attachment that flips into position from the side. Some play yards with changing tables also have organizers or built-in storage shelves for diapers and baby wipes. Many play yards also come with a bassinet attachment for babies weighing 15 pounds or less. While those two features can be useful, keep in mind that your baby will outgrow them pretty quickly. Most play yards can be used (without attachments) until your child weighs about 30 pounds--around 2 years old.
Remember that no matter how comfortable your baby seems dozing in a play yard or its bassinet attachment, a full-sized crib is the safest place for him to sleep.
Play-yard frames are typically made of metal tubing. Mesh on three or, better yet, all four sides provides ventilation and allows you to see your baby. Most models have hinges and lock buttons in the center of the top rails. To set up a play yard, you'll need to pull the top rails up so that they're locked, then push the floor down and secure the play yard mattress or pad. To fold this design, you'll need to pull the floor up, and then raise the top rails slightly while pressing the release buttons to unlatch and collapse the top rails. Before assembling or using your play yard, read the owner's manual carefully and keep it handy for future reference.
If your play yard is going to function mostly as a play space for your baby, or you're on a tight budget, you can probably go with a basic model and skip the accessories such as mobiles and bassinet insert. A pair of lockable wheels or swivel casters on one end of the yard will make it easier to move from room to room. If you'll use it for travel, you'll want a play yard that's lightweight, folds quickly and compactly, and has a carrying case. You may even want to be able to roll the packed unit. A carrying bag that allows the play yard's wheels to roll when it's packed is ideal.
Consumer Reports has not tested or rated recent models of play yards. The brands and models discussed in this buying guide are used as examples only--other models may be equally useful so choose the one that meets your needs.
Play yards come in two types: basic and deluxe. A basic play yard will be lightweight and won't have any extras such as a mobile or changing station. Deluxe models may come with a bassinet and a changing station, plus toy bars, music, and canopies.
Play-yard prices range from about $40 for the most basic to about $170 for premium models. A typical play yard weighs about 24 pounds without a bassinet and changing station, and nearly 33 pounds with those options.
Most play yards are designed for portability--to fit through a door, be moved from one room to another, or folded up to fit in the trunk of your car. Many are rectangular, usually 28 by 40 inches. A basic model such as the Cosco Funsport Travel Play Yard (pictured, about $55) has mesh on all sides and comes with a travel bag. Another lightweight model, Graco's Pack ‘n Play Playard/Circle Time (about $57), weighs about 20 pounds.
At the higher end of the price spectrum, you'll see a lot of add-on features. For example, the Graco Silhouette Pack ‘n Play Playard with Bassinet and Changer, shown here (about $170), has a removable changing table (with an "organizer" to hold diapers, wipes, etc.) and a bassinet feature. The bassinet has a maximum weight capacity of 15 pounds and the changing table has a weight capacity of 25 pounds. This model also comes with a vibrating mattress, electronic mobile, canopy, console with music, and nightlight. The manufacturer says you should only use the play yard with children under 35 inches tall.
If you expect to frequently move your play yard from room to room, check its dimensions before you buy. Many interior doorways are only 30 inches wide--no problem for the 28-inch width of most basic models. But many deluxe models are wider--the Graco mentioned above, for example, would be a tight squeeze at 28.8 inches wide. Just be aware that you might find yourself folding a deluxe model to move it around inside the house.
Look for a new play yard that offers the best combination of useful features. But don't spend money on features you won't use. Here are the play yard features to consider.
Bassinets and changing-table inserts can be useful. Just remember that you should never leave your child unattended within those devices in a play yard--no matter what type (or feature) you are using. Your infant may be content to sleep in her bassinet insert, but she's safest sleeping in a full-sized crib. That's because your child may begin moving around and could fall out of the bassinet, either onto the floor, or to the floor of the play yard, causing injury. You'll also need to remove the bassinet or changing station, (or flip the changing station to the outside of the yard, depending on the model) when your baby is in the main part of the play yard to avoid the possibility of the child getting trapped under those attachments.
Bassinet inserts can provide a nice place for newborns to nap. Look for a bassinet that securely attaches to the play yard in a way that prevents older children from dislodging or tamper with it, especially if you have other kids in the home or plan to use the bassinet for your next baby. Some of the models we tested in the past had bassinets that attached to the play yard with easily disengaged bars or exposed plastic clips. Older children could easily undo those fasteners, and that could cause the bassinet to fall to the play-yard floor. But one play yard we tested had bassinet clips that are covered by fabric flaps that are locked into place with a button, hiding the clips from view and protecting them from curious fingers. That's a safety plus.
Stop using the bassinet when your baby reaches the manufacturer's recommended weight limit (typically 15 pounds) or can sit up, pull up, or roll over. "For the first month or two they are not going to go anywhere," Gary Smith, M.D., Dr. P.H., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital and president of the Child Injury Prevention Alliance, said of infants. "But when they start to develop, they do it really quickly, and all of the sudden they are rolling over and sitting up." If you don't take precautions, Smith said, "Parents who don't take precautions may end up taking their child to the emergency department from a fall."
Many play yards, such as the Graco Silhouette discussed in Types, offer a bassinet that covers the entire length and width of the play yard. That is a good feature because it reduces the likelihood that your baby will fall into the play yard. But a baby could still fall outside of the play yard so stop using any bassinet attachment once your baby can push up on his hands and knees. The Safety 1st Travel Ease Elite Play Yard shown here (about $112) also comes with this type of bassinet, and a changing table and removable toy bar. It measures 30 x 46 1/4 inches and has lockable wheels.
Some attach to the longer top rail--you have to remove them to get them out of the way. Others simply rest on the long rails and are hinged at one shorter side rail so the changing station can be flipped over the rail to hang at the outer side of the play yard. We think it's safer to remove the changing table when not in use so it is out of reach of your baby and any other children. In addition, it is always better to have an active means of attachment to the frame--that is you have to click, snap, button, or strap a changing table or bassinet into place rather than just have it resting on a frame.
You might want to skip the expense of a changing table attachment in favor of an inexpensive and safe changing mat that you can use on the floor.
When using a changing-table attachment, always keep your hand on your baby and use the safety straps. (In past testing, we found models that didn't have restraining straps on the changing table. We think you should avoid such models.)
The Lullaby LX Playard by Chicco (pictured) has a nonhinged changing table with safety straps to help keep baby in place when you're changing diapers. (The Lullaby LX also comes with remote-controlled music, vibration features, a mobile, and a bassinet. It costs about $165.)
To avoid potentially fatal entrapment between the station and the yard's top rail, never put your baby in a play yard that has the changing table in place. Removing the table also eliminates the possibility of entrapment by any loop from the changing-table restraint strap, although no loops should be present in a play yard that is said to meet safety standards set by ASTM International (formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials).
Stop using the changing table insert when your child reaches the manufacturer's weight limit, which may be anywhere from 15 to 25 pounds.
Most manufacturers make play yards that are designed to move. Many roll on wheels and fold easily and compactly into their own totes, which resemble short golf bags (although less rugged), making them ideal for trips or jaunts to Grandma's. As we've said, basic play yards tend to be smaller (about 28 inches wide) and lighter (about 20 pounds) because they're not loaded with extras. If you can find a model that fits into its travel bag with its wheels exposed, it can make moving through a busy place such as an airport easier. The Chicco Lullaby LX mentioned above (pictured here) does that.
If you'll be traveling often with your baby, you'll want a play yard that folds and reassembles easily. The Century by Graco Pack ‘n Play Playard pictured here, for example, (about $50) is a basic model with folding feet and wheels, which the manufacturer says makes it more compact for travel.
A pair of lockable wheels or swivel casters on one end makes moving a play yard easier. For safety's sake, make sure the wheels lock. Some designs can be rolled when folded. That's a definite plus. The Lexi Safety 1st Deluxe Playard (shown here, about $100) has pivoting wheels, which the manufacturer says will make it easier to roll when you have to move it.
Many play yards with bassinets have a canopy to shade your baby from harsh light. Some canopies have attached toys that act as a mobile. Remove the canopy when you are no longer using the bassinet. In our opinion, canopies are an unnecessary expense. You should never put your play yard in direct sunlight anyway because babies can easily burn or become overheated.
Baby Trend Deluxe Nursery Center - BabyTech (shown here, about $120), for example, has a canopy and many other features.
Some models provide storage for toys and other baby items in zippered side pockets, fabric shelves, hook-on fabric storage pouches, and small clip-on parent-organizer bags. Of course those features aren't necessary, but if you want to use them, look for storage that is big enough to actually hold something. Storage compartments should attach, or be built into the outside of the play yard, so they're out of your baby's reach. One deluxe example is the S1 by Safety 1st Satellite Premier Playard - Pegasus (shown here, about $128), which comes with attached shelves and a small laundry hamper.
Some play yards feature a mobile with suspended toys or a detachable baby gym that can also be used with the bassinet mattress on the floor as a separate play mat for tummy time. These are a bonus, as are entertainment centers with music, soothing sounds, and lights. But all will contribute to the price and weight of the yard, and will make it more difficult to pack up the play yard for storage or travel. They usually require C or AA batteries (not included). Toys may not be necessary if you intend to use your play yard as just a portable nursery. But if you use a play yard as a mobile activity center, toys and sound effects can be helpful.
The Baby Trend Deluxe Playard shown here (about $130) has a mobile with teddy bears and also comes with an electronic music center with volume control, nightlight, and vibration. Its music center includes two styles of music, nature sounds, and an input for MP3 players.
This 22-year-old Ontario, Calif., company is the inventor and exclusive manufacturer of several unique juvenile products, including the Sit ‘n’ Stand stroller, car seats, and travel systems. Available wherever juvenile products are sold.
One of the largest baby brands in Europe, this 50-year-old company is part of the global Artsana Group, which makes everything from baby feeding systems to cosmetics to medical supplies. Chicco (pronounced "kee-ko") is now in more than 120 countries over six continents. Available wherever juvenile products are sold.
Family owned and operated since 1988, the company makes mattresses and bedding, including the patented Convoluted Foam mattress, and the patented Innerspring Convoluted mattress. Other products include portable and full-size cribs, strollers, toddler beds, bassinets, and other juvenile products. Available at most juvenile products retailers.
From a metal products company started in the 1950s grew a baby products company with the creation of a popular baby swing, the Swyngomatic. Graco now manufactures a full line of juvenile products, from nursery products and activity centers to strollers and car seats. Available everywhere and online.
A division of Dorel Juvenile Products, Safety 1st entered the juvenile market in 1984 with its now classic and internationally recognized "Baby on Board" sign. Fueled by the immediate success of the sign, the company claimed a market niche in child safety and became the first brand to develop a comprehensive line of "childproofing" products. Available everywhere juvenile products are sold, and online.
Some manufacturers claim that their play yards fold compactly and easily, which is especially important if you'll be traveling with it or assembling and disassembling it often. See for yourself how easy it is by practicing on floor models in the store before you buy. Some parents find that while they can collapse their play yard in a jiffy, fitting the whole thing into its travel bag is almost impossible. If traveling with the play yard is important to you, look at the travel bags when you are shopping.
Some basic models may be easier to cart around because they don't have any extra parts (see Foldability in Features). You can also look for bags that leave the play yard's wheels free, so the whole thing can be rolled once it's packed up. If you plan on taking frequent trips (especially by air), you might want to consider a heavy-duty bag that you can buy separately, such as the Rover Gear Easton Travel Yard Bag (about $34).
Play yards are popular shower gifts; if you're planning to include one on your registry list, consider the features you'll need and select the model yourself. If you'll be using the play yard as a changing station, for example, go with a model with a changing table and multiple storage compartments. Make sure any storage attaches to the outside and is positioned out of your baby's reach. When it comes to changing table attachments, we prefer changing stations that don't flip to the outside, as we believe that those that simply but securely attach to the top rails are safer. If you choose a model with a bassinet, make sure it attaches securely and covers most of the top.
It should also be no more than 1-inch thick, snug-fitting, and firm enough to protect your baby from falling or rolling into the loose mesh pocket that can form between the edge of the floor panel and side of the play yard (a suffocation hazard). We think it's safer when models have slots on the floor that allow the mattress's Velcro strips to be inserted and secured on the outside of the play yard, making it difficult for a baby or toddler to lift the mattress and possibly become trapped under it. Avoid models with a mattress that attaches to the bottom of a play yard only with Velcro pads that a child can access from the inside. Use only the mattress or pad that comes with your play yard.
Some play yards feature understated and neutral color combinations that could seemingly blend into the décor of any home. Others offer contrasting colors that make the play yard a standout. Still others come in boy- or girl-specific color selections, such as pink polka dots. Your baby won't care what the play yard looks like, but you might, so decide which way you want to go: neutral, high contrast, or with fabrics that signify "baby zone."
The Baby Trend Playard - In the Jungle (about $77), for example, has a design with small multicolored circles and a mobile with "jungle" animals, such as a lion.
The Chicco Lullaby Magic play yard has a muted, brown fabric and three little owls on its mobile, while the Chicco Lullaby LX, mentioned earlier, is available in a range of solid colors, including pink.
Buy the play yard with the most recent date of manufacture. The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association certifies that some brands meet current voluntary safety standards for play yards. This certification is not required by law and is not supervised by any government agency. Still, we feel a JPMA certification sticker offers some assurance that a product meets the safety standard. The play yard standard addresses design problems of earlier models, such as inadequate locking devices or protrusions that can snag clothing and create a strangulation hazard.
These manufacturers make play yards/less-than-full-size cribs that carry the certification seal from JPMA: AFG International, Baby Trend, Chicco, Delta Enterprise, Dorel/Safety 1st, Evenflo, Foundations Worldwide, Graco, Joovy, L.A. Baby Products, Natart Juvenile/ALDI/TULIP, and Summer Infant.
For safety's sake, don't use a hand-me-down or garage-sale play yard. Older models may have a top-rail hinge that can collapse, forming a steep, V-shaped angle that puts children at risk of being trapped or strangled. They may also have changing-table restraint straps that can form a loop beneath the changing table, posing a strangulation hazard to a child in the play yard. For example, in 2007 the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of 425,000 Kolcraft play yards for that reason. And in January 2009, the CPSC announced a recall of 200,000 Fisher-Price Rainforest Portable Play Yards manufactured by Simplicity Inc. and SFCA Inc. after 1,350 reports of side-rail collapse; injuries included cuts, bruises, and broken bones. In the past, incidents of side-rail collapse have resulted in more serious injuries and some deaths. Even if you plan to buy new, protect yourself by signing up for e-mail recall notices at www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.aspx. And send in the registration card to the manufacturer to ensure that you'll be informed of any recalls. Play yards are one of the 18 types of juvenile products that must, by law, include pre-addressed, postage-paid product registration cards and an easy way to register your product online. Manufacturers are forbidden from using or sharing the information you put on those cards for marketing purposes.
Although the voluntary standard for play yards has been regularly revised and tightened since requirements were added in 1997 for automatically locking top rails and in 1999 for latch strength, play yards were still responsible for an estimated 2,300 injuries to children in 2010, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission's latest data.
Play yards have also been associated with 29 infant deaths due to suffocation, strangulation, or entrapment from 2005 through 2007 (the most recent CPSC statistics). Most of those deaths were due to positional asphyxia, where the infant becomes wedged between the mattress and the side of the play yard. Children have also strangled while in their play yards on nearby window-blind cords or suffocated in soft bedding such as blankets. Just as with a crib, nothing should go in the play yard or bassinet attachment with the baby besides a fitted sheet meant to be used with the floor pad that comes with the unit. That means no stuffed animals, bedding, or pillows.
As with a crib, using a play yard can be a matter of life and death because babies can get themselves into trouble even when they're sleeping. Here's how to keep your baby safe.