Play yards offer a safe and portable space for baby to nap or play. While it used to be that play yards were simply a padded square for baby to hang out in, today's models can be quite high-tech, with built-in soothing devices, connections for your music players, lights and sounds, changing tables, and even some storage options or toys. If you're thinking about buying a play yard for your baby, here are some features to consider.
What Is a Play Yard?
Play yard is the newer term for a playpen. Some models are made to be packed up for easy travel. While most come with a carrying case of some sort, some go an extra step and have wheels on the case or allow the play yard's own wheels to stick through the case so the whole thing can be wheeled like a suitcase.
Many parents refer to the play yard as a Pack 'n Play®. However, Pack 'n Play® is a brand name for Graco's popular line of play yards, so not every play yard is a Pack 'n Play®. Some manufacturers refer to their modern play pens as playards.
Nearly every play yard can be folded for travel in some way, and most come with a case that makes it easy to take the play yard along when you're away from home.
Some can even be checked as baggage when you fly. However, if you travel often, you'll want to consider the weight and durability of the play yard. Some full-featured play yards can be fairly heavy, which may not be so convenient while traveling. A play yard that feels flimsy from the start probably won't improve after being folded, unfolded and banged around during travel, either, so choose a model that feels solid.
How Will You Use It?
If you simply need a space to keep baby safe while you take a shower or get a bit of work done, a basic play yard is probably sufficient. For parents with multi-level homes, play yards with accessory bassinets and changing tables are handy, so you don't have to make as many trips up and down stairs. For travelers, the same is true, as long as the accessories pack easily in the play yard case. It's important to note that play yards aren't required to meet the same safety standards as regular cribs, so it's not recommended to use the play yard as a full-time crib, particularly as baby grows into a toddler.
New federal safety standards for play yards sold in the U.S. went into effect in 2013. Tests for stability, entrapment, and structural integrity are now mandatory, as are minimum side height requirements to keep toddlers from climbing out. More than 2,000 play yard incidents were reported to CPSC between 2007 and 2011. These reports included 170 injuries and 60 deaths. If you're considering buying a used play yard, keep in mind that the safety standards were voluntary prior to 2013.
Convenience Is Key
Fully-loaded play yards can simplify life with a new baby, but only if all of the features work as you hope.
Be sure to check out how the play yard folds. If it has a bassinet or changing table, detach them and put them back on. Will you need to find storage for them or can they fold up or hang on the play yard edge? If you'll need to move the play yard around your home, will it fit through doorways? Does it have caster wheels and do they roll smoothly? Some play yards have built-in storage, too. Does the storage space make baby's play area smaller?
Lights, Sounds and Motions
Some play yards have built-in soothing systems. From simpler systems with electronic lullabies or lights to jacks that let you pipe in your own favorites from your MP3 player, your baby can enjoy music nearly anywhere nowadays. Other play yards even have mechanical rockers that sway baby for soothing. These functions usually take batteries, so be prepared for that expense.
Also consider that your baby may have a crib soother or other musical/light-up toy that could be moved to the play yard if needed, or your baby may even enjoy the sound of silence.
You can find a play yard in almost any color or pattern you want, whether you hope to coordinate with your home decor or you want to go all out with pastel, cartoon-theme baby gear. Some new play yards have wood frames instead of plastic, which may appeal to those who want a more traditional furniture look. Plenty of modern designs are also available, with sleek changing tables perched on top like sculptures.
Age and Weight Limits
All play yards have weight limits after which the play yard should no longer be used. Some play yards have higher weight limits than others. When comparing play yards with accessories, check the weight limits on bassinets and changing tables carefully. On these accessories there can be quite a bit of difference in how long you may be able to use them based on weight. Accessories such as bassinets will also have an age limit or instructions to stop using the accessory when baby can sit up or roll over.
Babies are endlessly messy, even when they're contained safely in a play yard. Some play yards come with sheets that zip off or detach easily for washing. Others have wipe-clean surfaces. You can also find sheets for play yards at baby products stores, but if you plan to use the extra sheets, you'll need to plan ahead and buy a play yard in a size that will fit the types of sheets available, or find out if the manufacturer sells extras.
You can spend anywhere from about $50 for a no-frills model to $300 or more for a full-featured design with luxury fabrics. All play yards will do the same job when it comes to providing a safe spot for baby to hang out. The accessories can be convenient, and can be found at some of the lower price points, so you can enjoy them with little guilt. However, if you're on a tight budget, remember that the weight limits on the accessories mean you likely won't be using them for more than a few months.