Play yards

Play yards—updated versions of playpens—are for more than just playing. They can also provide babies with an enclosed place for napping and some can function as a portable changing table, saving you from having to run to the nursery for every diaper change.

How necessary is a play yard? You can certainly live without one. But a play yard can fill a need you might not know you have until you start using it.

Of course, a play yard gives your baby a place to play. Some play yards have extras to amuse your baby, including a mobile, a detachable toy bar, or an entertainment center that features music, nature sounds, and/or dancing lights, some activated by remote control.

As a portable changing station, some play yards come with a changing table insert or an attached changing table that flips into position from the side and an organizer or built-in storage shelves for diapers and baby wipes.

Although a full-size crib is the safest place for your baby to doze, a play yard with a bassinet attachment can also double as a portable crib for home or travel for babies who weigh 15 pounds or less. The latest versions offer a nightlight and a vibrating mattress pad (batteries not included).

Most play yards originally were 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 a standard rectangular size, usually 28x40 inches. But some of the latest versions are bigger, measuring nearly 30 inches wide, which is about the same as a standard-size door, so scooting them from room to room in the set-up position might be a tight squeeze, if not impossible.

Still, many manufacturers also make travel play yards that are designed to move. They roll on wheels and fold easily and compactly into their own tote that resembles a short golf bag for vacations, business trips, and jaunts to Grandma's. A typical play yard weighs about 24 pounds without the bassinet and changing station, and nearly 33 pounds with them. Travel play yards, though, tend to be smaller (about 23 inches wide) and light (about 20 pounds) because they're not loaded with extras.

Play yard frames are typically made of metal tubing. Mesh on three or all four sides provides ventilation and allows you to keep an eye on your baby. Most models have hinges and lock buttons in the center of the top rails. To set up a play yard, you pull the top rails up so that they're locked, then push the floor down. To fold this design, you pull the floor up, and then raise the top rails slightly while pressing the release buttons to unlatch and collapse the top rails. When assembling your play yard, read the owner's manual carefully and keep it handy for future reference.

Shopping secrets

Think about how you'll use your play yard

If it's going to function mostly as a playpen or you're on a tight budget, you can probably go with a basic model, such as the Cosco Funsport ($43.38 at Walmart), which scored Excellent in our Ratings (available to subscribers), and skip the extras. A pair of lockable wheels or swivel casters on one end 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 its own carrying case. You might even want to roll the packed unit. A carrying bag that allows the play yard's wheels to roll when it's packed is ideal.

If you plan to have your newborn take naps in the play yard while you use it as a traveling nursery, compare the bassinet options. Most play yards offer a full-size bassinet, which runs the entire length and width of the play yard. Some feature a full-size bassinet that rocks or locks in place. Other models have a canopy to help shield your baby from light while in the bassinet only, which can be helpful for nap and bedtime.

Know when to fold 'em

Some manufacturers claim that their play yards fold compactly and easily, which is especially important if you'll be traveling with the play yard and assembling and disassembling it often. See for yourself by practicing on the floor models in a store, if you can.

Select the play yard yourself

Play yards are popular shower gifts. If you're planning to include one on your registry list, select the model yourself and consider the features you'll need for your situation. 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 they attach to the outside or are positioned so they're out of your baby's reach.

Be sure to check the floor pad

It should be one that the manufacturer supplied for the model. 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 judged safer the models that 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.

Think about 'the look'

Some play yards feature understated and neutral color combinations that could seemingly blend into the décor of any home. Others offer stylish contrasting colors that make the play yard a standout. Still others come in gender-specific color selections, such as pink polka dot with coordinating plaid. Your baby won't care what the play yard looks like, but you might, especially after a while, so decide which way you want to go: neutral, high-contrast, or with fabrics that signify "baby zone."

Check the production date and packaging

Buy the play yard with the most recent date. Make sure that the model has a certification sticker from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association indicating that it meets the current American Society for Testing and Materials voluntary standard for play yards, which addresses design problems of earlier models, such as inadequate locking devices or protrusions that can snag clothing and pose a strangulation hazard.

Don't buy used

For safety's sake, don't use a hand-me-down or garage-sale play yard. Older models might 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 might 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. In 2007, 425,000 Kolcraft play yards were recalled for that reason. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has also recalled models that pose a rail-collapse hazard. Recalled models might still be in circulation, which is another reason why we recommend buying new. Unless a product has been recalled, though, it's safe to save a play yard for your next baby, provided that your children are close in age and that the play yard is in good condition with no tears in the mesh sides.

What's available

Some major brands, in alphabetical order, are Baby Trend (www.babytrend.com), Chicco (www.chiccousa.com), Combi (www.combi-intl.com), Cosco (www.coscojuvenile.com), Delta Enterprise (www.deltaenterprise.com), Eddie Bauer (http://eddiebauer.djgusa.com), Evenflo (www.evenflo.com), Fisher-Price (www.fisher-price.com), Foundations (www.foundations.com), Graco (www.gracobaby.com), Kolcraft (www.kolcraft.com), Safety 1st (www.safety1st.com), Simplicity for Children (www.simplicityforchildren.com), and Summer Infant (www.summerinfant.com). Play yards range from about $43 for the most basic to about $250 for premium models.

Recommendations

Look for a new play yard that's certified by the JPMA, one that offers the best combination of useful features, such as an attachable bassinet where a newborn can nap, a diaper-changing station, and a parent organizer pouch. (See our Ratings, which are available to subscribers, for recommended models.) A pair of lockable wheels or swivel casters on one end will make it easier to move the play yard. Keep safety in mind. Be sure to check the floor pad; it should be no more than 1 inch thick and snug fitting. Practice our Safety Strategies. If you use a play yard for overnight sleeping, keep in mind that the bassinet mattress is thin for a reason: to prevent a child from becoming wedged between the pad and the sides. Never add extra mattresses or padding, and don't use blankets or other types of soft bedding, which pose a suffocation hazard. Also keep stuffed toys out of a play yard at nap time and bedtime. As with cribs, "bare is best" when a play yard is used for sleeping. Instead, layer your baby's clothing for warmth with a onesie or T-shirt and a footed sleeper or wearable sleeper sack. Stop using a play yard when your child attempts to climb out or when he reaches the height and weight limits (typically 35 inches and 30 pounds). Stop using the bassinet attachment when your baby reaches 3 months or 15 pounds or can sit up, pull up, or roll over. Do the same when your baby reaches the weight and height limits for the changing table component (check your owner's manual). Register your play yard online at the manufacturer's Web site or by completing and returning the product registration. That step helps to ensure that you'll be notified in case of a recall, which isn't uncommon with this product category.

Play yard certification

These manufacturers make play yards/non-full-size cribs (cribs less than full-size) that carry the certification seal from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association: Amwan Inc. dba L.A. Baby, Baby Trend, Chicco, Delta Enterprise, Dorel Juvenile Group (Cosco and Safety 1st), Dream on Me Evenflo, Foundations, Graco, Kolcraft, Simplicity for Children, and Summer Infant.

Posted: January 2009 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: February 2009