One day, your baby rolls over. The next, they’re sitting up on their own. Before you know it, your little one’s crawling. Every new mobility development is a time for celebration. But it also means that at some point—usually from five-to-13 months for crawling and six-to-14 months for walking—your infant may gain the ability to evade your watchful eye.
That’s exactly why the baby playpen, or play yard, was created. It’s a walled structure that keeps your little one from roaming away from you while also allowing them the freedom to entertain themselves. With the help of a playpen, you’ll be able to make breakfast, brush your teeth (and maybe even your hair) while your baby or toddler plays away from household hazards like outlets and stairs.
The challenge for moms? There are many types of playpens—with different features and prices—to choose from. Some baby playpens can be easily packed up and transported, which makes them great for a road trip or visit with the grandparents. Others come with accessories like attachable bassinets and changing pads. With all these options, deciding which playpen works best for your family can be tricky. If you’re not sure where to start, discover our answers to the most pressing concerns.
Questions to ask when buying a baby playpen
- Do I need a baby playpen or a baby play yard?
- What features for safe play should I look for?
- If I want a portable play yard, what features do I need?
- What dimensions and shape of playpen work best?
- Are there materials or designs that make cleaning easier?
- Are there any special or “extra” features that I should consider?
1Do I need a baby playpen or a baby play yard?
While not a necessity, a good playpen can come in handy once your little one starts moving on their own. Plopping your kiddo into one of these enclosures provides a hazard-free space to play so you can have your hands free. When deciding whether or not to invest in this extra piece of baby gear, consider the following:
- Playpen vs play yard: You may have noticed that these two terms are often used interchangeably. That’s because both names refer to walled spaces that ensure your baby has a safe play zone. “Play yards” are essentially fancy playpens and often come with mattresses, change tables, bassinets and more. If you also come across the term Pack ‘n Play, it’s the name for Graco’s version of a play yard.
- Age range: If your little one can’t move around on their own, there’s no need to invest in a baby playpen (unless you want a play yard/bassinet combo for travel). But whenever your bundle of joy starts crawling—typically as early as five-months-old—a playpen might start to seem like a really smart idea. Each playpen will have its own weight and height restrictions, but most should last you until around two years old.
- Budget: A play yard is definitely more of a “nice-to-have” than a must-have. If you’re working with a smaller budget, a basic baby playpen will do just fine. You can also skip the purchase altogether and go with a safety gate and play mat (items you may already be buying anyway) and move them from room to room.
2What features for safe play should I look for?
- Weight and height restrictions: Every playpen or play yard will come with its own size restrictions. It’s important to note these limits to keep your youngster safe. (Read more about height restrictions below.)
- Size of mesh: Mesh is a common material for a playpen’s walls because the holes allow for good airflow and let you sneak a peek at your cutie. However, you’ll want to be sure that the holes of the mesh are no more than a quarter-inch wide. Any bigger and your baby could get caught. Also watch out for tears in the mesh, loose threads and missing staples along the seams.
- Proper padding: According to the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act, the floor pad of your baby playpen should be firm and no more than 38 millimetres thick. You’ll also want to make sure that there’s no space between the padding and the frame as this could create a safety hazard for your tiny tot. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for loose or ripped padding.
- Locks: When setting up your play space, put the playpen sides in the fully raised and locked position before placing your baby inside. Some playpens automatically lock when closed, taking care of this safety step for you.
- JPMA safety seal: Check to see if the model has received a Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association safety seal. While not government mandated, companies can volunteer to have their products tested. The JPMA seal lets you know the brand has gone to extra lengths to ensure their product is safe for your baby.
3If I want a portable play yard, what features do I need?
- Lightweight: Consumer Reports found that a basic play yard typically weighs around 24 pounds, while deluxe models are often over 30 pounds. If portability is at the top of your list of must haves, go for a bare-bones model that you can lift more easily.
- Foldability: Being able to fold your play yard down into a fraction of its size makes it much easier to tote around. Some models, like the 4moms Breeze 4 Plus Playard, even come with their own carrying bag so you can seamlessly fold and go.
- Wheels: Some play yards roll on wheels, which make getting from room to room a breeze. Wheels can also be a handy feature for grandparents who don’t want to lift and carry the playpen every time they need to change location. Just make sure they’re locked once you park the pen.
- Canopy: If you plan on using your baby play yard outdoors, a canopy can help to keep the sun off your baby’s delicate skin. That said, you can also opt for sunscreen (always a necessity—and we’ve created a cheat sheet for choosing the best baby sunscreen) and shade from a tree, so a canopy may not be a feature worth splurging on.
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4What dimensions and shape of playpen work best?
- Height: Playpens in Canada must be tall enough to safely contain kids until they’re 90 centimetres tall (just under three feet). According to these regulations, that means the sides should reach a height of 50.8 centimetres or more from the top of the play mat.
- Shape: When it comes to the shape, you typically have two options: rectangular and octangular. Since rectangular playpens can fit into corners and along walls (away from curtains or blinds), they’re a good option for apartment or condo dwellers. Octangular playpens typically have a wider circumference, so they’re better suited for open spaces.
- Expandability: Playpens come in all sizes. Some are compact and great for small homes or travel. Others take up a lot of real estate, which gives adventurous kids room to explore. If you want something to grow with your child, look for an expandable model that lets you add more locking panels to increase the playpen size.
5Are there materials or designs that make cleaning easier?
Where your little one goes, messes are sure to follow. Since playpens are meant to make your life easier, the last thing you want is one that’s difficult to clean. For this reason, look for playpens that have removable mattress covers made of machine-washable materials like cotton or polyurethane. Waterproof materials like vinyl and canvas also make cleaning up spills easy-peasy.
As for design, pick a baby playpen that can be easily disassembled so that you can wash parts separately without having to scrub down the entire structure every time a mess occurs. Try to check reviews on the product you’re considering so you’ll see any flags about messiness or trouble with assembly.
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6Are there any special or “extra” features that I should consider?
You don’t have to shell out the big bucks to get your money’s worth. If you plan to only use your playpen occasionally or don’t foresee it being a long-term play space, there’s no need to buy a heavy-duty model with all the bells and whistles. A basic baby playpen, like the Evenflo Portable BabySuite, will still provide a safe space for your youngster.
But if you’re planning to use your playpen for multiple children, or you want to use it as a portable nap and change station, it may be worthwhile to invest in something with extra features for the convenience.
- Bassinet attachment: If you have a newborn and are looking for a playpen to last you into toddlerhood, a bassinet may be a welcome attachment because it’s a convenient place for your little one to snooze when you’re visiting family or friends. Just remember, play-yard bassinets have weight restrictions (usually for infants under 15 pounds), which means they’ll probably be usable for less than a year. They’re also not meant to replace your baby’s crib as they’re generally less secure, especially if you have a fidgety sleeper. It’s usually wise to stop using the bassinet once your baby is able to pull themselves up or roll over, as they could tumble out.
- Changing table: You never know when nature will call, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Buying a play yard with a change table will allow you to swiftly replace a diaper whenever it’s needed. When selecting a play yard and changing table combo, look for a model where the table snaps or locks into place, since it’s generally your safer option. Again, your little one may quickly outgrow this extra feature due to weight restrictions. You can also save money by simply swapping in a changing pad, so a changing table is definitely more of a “nice to have” than a “need to have.”
- Storage: If you’re often on the go and need a baby playpen that can keep up, look for a model with extra built-in storage, like the Graco Pack ‘n Play Close2Baby Playard. Just make sure your toddler can’t reach all your supplies!
- Soothing system: If you have a baby that has trouble self-soothing, it could be worthwhile to find a play yard with a soothing system. Whether it comes in the form of a vibrating bassinet, soft music or a nightlight, a soothing system may give your infant comfort if they feel anxious. On the flip side, if your kid is an independent player, there’s no need to seek out these features as they can drive up the price. Just give them a few of their favourite toys and they’ll be happy as can be.