One of the best purchases from a baby registry for a new baby is a play mat. These toys are also known as a baby gym or an activity gym. These large, colorful cushioned, mats provide a lot of versatility for babies.
Choosing the Best Play Mat for Babies
Play mats are one of the first toys babies will ever engage with through play, and potentially a toy they will use multiple times per day, for at least the first 6-9 months of their lives.
So, during the process of identifying a baby gym, do not let an expensive $60-$100 price tag scare you. These versatile toys offer several play experiences that entertain a baby, and enhance the child's ability to learn new skills.
Newborn infants will use the mat differently than older babies. Newborns enjoy lying on their back under the arches, first looking at toys. You may find them randomly moving their arms in the air bumping the dangling toys. Eventually they will use their hands to swat and grab dangling toys, moving their fingers and experiencing soft, crinkly and bumpy textures of the toys.
Tummy time is a critical skill for babies to master. This is when a baby lies on their belly and lifts their head up. This strength is needed for crawling and other developmental skills. After lifting their head comes rolling. Babies learn to roll from their belly to back and vice versa at 4-5 months of age.
Around 6 months a baby is able to sit and play with their hands free. The first year of life is filled with so much excitement as children learn to complete many new skills that help them move, play and talk.
Most infant play mats and baby gyms have similar accessories and functions, so here are many important considerations to find the best toy to suit the needs of your baby and your family:
Consider The Size
Play mats and baby gyms arrive in all sizes, generally circular, oval or square shapes. Also consider the size of the mat, should there be limitations in floor space within your home.
Arches or No arches?
Play mats and activity gyms have arches. Arches are one of the best features of activity gyms, as toys can be suspended from the arches in many places, engaging baby in their favorite position whether it be on their back, belly, side, or sitting. Arches will be removed to wash the mat, store it or transport on vacation. Look for arches that can be easily removed.
Plastic of Fabric?
For general home use, fabrics that are light and soft are best. These fabrics can be laundered and are softer, should baby bump their head, or drop, throw and pull at toys. However, activity gyms that include more plastic toys, arches and components may be a better option for daycares and childcare centers where toys require that toys be cleaned more often.
Is It Portable?
How easily does the mat or gym fold up to be stored to bring into another room or placed in the car for family events or vacations? Does it zip into a carrying case?
What Other Toys Are Included?
Many gyms include mobiles.
Some play mats a re-positionable track for moving toys. Babies can lie on their back while watching and reaching for toys that glide back and forth above them. As a child's skills advance, given simple velcro closures, the track can be repositioned as an engaging tummy time activity or used for older babies learning to sit and play.
Does It Play Music?
There are times in development and during the day that sound can be calming for babies. However, what one child likes, may be different than another. Depending upon the child and the type of music integrated into the toy, it could be overstimulating to the child or even frustrating for the parent, so look for on/off switches on musical toys when possible.
Consider Patterns and Themes
Is this your first child? Do you plan to have more children? Are you looking for gender neutral fabrics or not?
Other Safety Considerations
- Always check the thickness in the cushion. For families with hardwood floor living spaces, consider purchasing foam interlocking mats to cushion the surface the play mat is on
- Never place a play mat or activity gym on a bed or raised surface like an ottoman where baby could roll off and injure themselves
Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.