Smart Shopping: 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 may 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-sized 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 weighing 15 pounds or less. The latest versions offer a night light and a vibrating mattress pad (batteries not included).
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'll need to pull the top rails up so that they're locked, then push the floor down. 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. When assembling your play yard, read the owner's manual carefully and keep it handy for future reference.
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 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 a carrying case. You may 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.
Play yards' prices range from about $43 for the most basic to about $250 for premium models. A typical play yard weighs around 24 pounds without the bassinet and changing station, and nearly 33 pounds with those options. Here are the types of play yards to consider.
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 28 by 40 inches.
But some of the latest versions are bigger, measuring nearly 30 inches wide, which is about the same as a standard-sized door, so scooting them from room to room in the set-up position may be a tight squeeze, if not impossible.
If you plan for your newborn to nap in the play yard, compare the bassinet options. Most play yards offer a full-sized bassinet, which runs the entire length and width of the play yard. Some feature a full-sized 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 naptime and bedtime.
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, making them ideal for vacations, business trips, and jaunts to Grandma's. Travel play yards, though, tend to be smaller (around 23 inches wide) and lighter (around 20 pounds) because they're not loaded with extras.
Look for a new play yard 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. But don't spend money on features you won't use. Here are the play yard features to consider.
This gives newborns a place to nap. If you have older children or plan to use this play yard for your next baby, look for a bassinet that is secured to the play yard in a way that older children can't tamper with. Some of the units we tested had bassinets that attached to the play yard with easily disengaged bars or by bars and exposed plastic clips. Older siblings could easily undo those fasteners, which could cause the bassinet to fall to the play-yard floor. But one play yard we tested had bassinet clips that are covered by the bassinet's fabric flaps that button on the play yard, hiding the clips from view. It was judged safe. Look for a design that's easy to use. 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.
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.
Most cases are fabric bags that hold all the components of the play yard. The four sections of the folded-up floor provide support for the bag by surrounding the unit's other components. A carrying case with a shoulder strap can make life easier. Some models have the added convenience of rolling while folded.
Most attach to the top of the top rail although some are suspended from the side and can be rotated down to hang at the side of the play yard. We think the side-suspension design is safer because parents are less likely to leave it in place. When using a changing table, always keep your hand on your baby and use the safety straps. Two units we tested didn't have restraining straps. We think you should avoid such models. Remove the changing station or flip it out of the way once your baby is in the play yard to avoid potentially fatal entrapment between the station and the yard's top rail, and to avoid entrapment by any loop from the changing table restraint strap, although the loop should not be present in a play yard that meets the ASTM International standard.
If you'll be traveling often with your baby, you'll want a play yard that folds and reassembles easily.
Some models provide storage for toys and other baby items in zippered side pockets, hook-on fabric storage pouches, and clip-on parent-organizer bags. They should be big enough to actually hold something. Look for a model with storage compartments that attach or are built into the outside so they're out of your baby's reach.
Toys, music, lights
Some play yards feature a mobile with suspended hanging toys or a detachable toy 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. 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.
Wheels or casters
A pair of lockable wheels or swivel casters on one end makes moving the play yard easier. Make sure the wheels lock. Some designs can be rolled when folded. That's a definite plus.
Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.
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