Activity centers--parent and baby friendly features

Consumer Reports News: May 07, 2009 04:54 PM

As you may know, a stationary activity center is a safer alternative to a doorway jumper or a walker because it keeps your baby busy while he stays in one spot. Your baby is eligible for one as soon as he can sit up unassisted (typically starting at around 4 to 6 months). He’ll outgrow it when he’s 30 to 32 inches tall or weighs 25 to 30 pounds. In the mean time, he’s all set for lots of fun. (See our full report on stationary activity centers for babies.)

Use these features to help you choose the right model for your baby:

Motion. Some activity centers offer merely a stationary seat. Others feature a seat that swivels 360 degrees, with springs that allow the unit to bounce when baby moves and create a rocking motion. If you’ve got an active baby, consider getting a higher-octane model.

Stabilizers. These anchor the frame in a stationary position. They’re a must to keep a rocking activity center from becoming too turbulent or if you want to feed your baby in her activity center. Check them out. The stabilizers should seem sturdy. (See our activity center safety tips.)

Adjustable height. Many models offer legs that adjust to three heights, so the activity center can grow as your baby grows. The height of the play tray is the key. When the tray is at the proper height, your baby’s feet will touch the floor and her legs will be straight when she’s seated. If your baby is on her tippy toes when she’s seated, the tray is too high. If her knees are bent when she’s seated, it’s too low. Keep tabs on this feature. You may have to adjust the legs (without your baby in it) every month or so, just to keep pace with your baby’s growth.

Seat. More expensive models have cushy seat padding. Seat pads are typically removable for machine washing, which is a real plus. You might have to air-dry them, though. Check the care and maintenance requirements on the label or in the instruction manual.

Your battery budget. All activity centers feature a play tray with attached interactive toys, such as a fun house mirror, a spinning stoplight, picture books, and bead toys along with lights, songs, sounds, and sometimes bilingual voices. To make these gizmos work, you’ll need up to 12 AAA batteries, depending on the model. In general, more expensive models are loaded with exciting options and have lots of ways to bounce and rock so your baby feels like she’s on the go. They also require more battery power.

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