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.