A portable play yard that acts as a combination playpen and bassinet is not an absolute must when it comes to baby gear. But it definitely makes traveling easier. Whether it's a quick afternoon trip to a friend's house or a week at the beach, play yards give babies a comfortable place to sleep and play.
"Often when parents leave the house they don't have access to a safe crib at a hotel or the grandparents' house," said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Play yards are a very popular alternative to a crib. It's a safe option."
New safety regulations governing the manufacture of play yards went into effect in February, Tenenbaum said. The updated standards ban play yards with side rails that make a sharp "V" when the unit is folded; require stronger corner brackets to prevent collapsing; and strengthen the attachments that keep the mattress from moving around, Tenenbaum said.
— Bare is best. Just as with any crib, you should have only a snug fitted sheet over the mattress, said CPSC's Tenenbaum. Do not use any pillows, quilts, blankets, stuffed animals or other soft items. Babies can wear footed pajamas or sleep sacks to help them keep warm in cooler weather, Tenenbaum said.
— Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Make sure your child is within the weight and height recommendations for your model, including any attachments such as bassinets and rocking seats. Most play yards are intended for children who are less than 35 inches tall, Tenenbaum said.
— Do regular inspections. Check your play yard often to make sure no parts are damaged, loose or missing. Make sure there are no holes in the mesh or cracks in the plastic. Visit the CPSC's Web site at www.cpsc.gov or www.saferproducts.gov to find out about product recalls.
— Keep it clean. Wipe your play yard with soap and water and allow it to drip-dry, said Ashley Mowrey, a spokeswoman for Graco, a manufacturer of baby gear. Never use bleach. You can machine wash the carrying bag in lukewarm water, and if your play yard has a rocking seat, machine-wash it separately in cold water on the delicate cycle, then drip-dry.
— Be careful in the sand. Remove sand from all surfaces before packing your play yard into its bag after a day at the beach, Mowrey said. Sand can damage the top rail lock, making the play yard unsafe.
Low, Medium and High
We asked Graco to recommend three play yards at different price points. Here are its suggestions:
— Pack 'n Play Playard with Reversible Napper and Changer. It has a space that can be used for newborn napping or changing, with reversible fabric (a soft side for sleeping and fabric that can be wiped down for diaper changes). It has a full-size removable bassinet and an organizer with a wipes case and diaper stacker. It comes in one pattern. $99.99.
— Pack 'n Play Playard with Newborn Napper Station DLX. This model comes in four patterns and is equipped with a microfleece napping station for newborns. It also has built-in storage shelves. It plays music or nature sounds and has two-speed vibration in the napping station. $169.99.
— Pack 'n Play Playard with Cuddle Cove Rocking Seat. It yard comes with a removable vibrating rocker with handles, so you can carry your baby from room to room. The rocking seat and the bassinet vibrate gently to soothe babies. The cover of the rocking seat is removable and machine-washable. It comes in five patterns. $199.99.
Play yards range from a basic folding crib to a fully equipped baby care station to a sleek piece of furniture that fits into your decor, said Kerry Strzelecki, director of marketing for Graco. She offered several suggestions for determining what best suits your lifestyle.
1. How will you use it? If you are looking for a full-service care station for your baby outside the nursery, a model with more features such as a rocker, a changing table and storage may best suit your needs, according to Strzelecki. But if the play yard is primarily for travel, those added features could make it more difficult to fold and take with you. A base model might be better for parents who travel a lot, she said.
2. Where will you use it? Similarly, if you plan to use the play yard at home and be moving it from room to room, look for a model with wheels, and check its size when open to make sure it will fit through doorways. If you are traveling with the play yard, its size when folded might be more important, so it can fit easily in the back of your car.
3. Consider your storage needs. Many play yards now come equipped with integrated or removable storage for diapers, wipes, clothes and other baby supplies.
— $122 million in total play yard sales in the United States in 2011 (Source: Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association)
— 50+ fatalities related to play yards in the United States have been reported to the CPSC since 2007.
— 1.4 million play yards have been recalled since 2009 (Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission)