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For older babies, seated activity centers are engaging

Stationary activity centers are designed for babies who are able to sit upright unassisted but aren't standing or walking on their own. Typically, babies are able to use this type of activity center around 4 to 6 months of age. The most common type of seated activity center has a swiveling seat in the middle. Toys surround the seat, and babies can use their feet and hands to swivel around to the various toys. This type of activity center is pretty compact, taking up a conservative amount of floor space.

Another variation of this type of activity center situates the seat on the outside of a small activity table. This type takes up a lot more floor space but is more flexible since it can later be converted to a small play table if you remove the seat. Many seated entertainment centers also offer adjustable heights, enabling parents to alter the unit as their child grows.

Experts say babies shouldn't remain in seated activity centers for more than 30 minutes at a time. Babies' weaker back and leg muscles aren't used to maintaining upright postures for prolonged periods of time; overuse can cause fatigue or pain.

Among activity centers with the seat in the middle, Graco's Baby Einstein Discover & Play Activity Center is repeatedly recognized as a best stationary entertainer in the reviews we read. Evaluations on ConsumerGuide.com, TheFamilyGroove.com, BabyGizmo.com, About.com and Tibesti.com all recommend it, and owner opinions on Amazon.com, ToysRUs.com and LilaGuide.com are highly favorable. The Graco Baby Einstein Discover & Play Activity Center offers nine interactive toys, a seat that swivels all the way around, and a three-position height adjustment, so you can adjust it as your child grows. Toys include plush figures, spinning items, stacking toys, buttons to push and a hand puppet. The Baby Einstein requires three AA batteries to activate the sound features, and its seat is machine washable. It is recommended for babies between 5.5 and 30 pounds who are less than 32 inches tall and able to sit upright without assistance but are not yet able to walk.

Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of TheBump.com, includes the Graco Baby Einstein Discover & Play Activity Center in her list of best baby activity centers on Tibesti.com, saying that the toys really do cover "all the bases." Roney raves about the center's comfy swiveling seat. Editors of ConsumerGuide.com also like the center's bilingual feature (words are repeated in English and Spanish). On the downside, this review states that the activity center's plastic tray was difficult to clean.

Parent reviews are complimentary, though we did find one mention of the unit's starfish and book toys breaking and a few parents complain that their younger babies weren't able to reach some of the toys when they first bought the activity center. Additionally, the Graco Baby Einstein Discover & Play Activity Center doesn't collapse, so it's not ideal for travel.

We also found some good reviews for the similar Evenflo SmartSteps ExerSaucer Active Learning Center (*Est. $105), which is recommended for babies 4 months old and older (until the child is able to walk but not for babies taller than 30 inches). This ExerSaucer can collapse for travel or for easy storage and its seat cushion is machine washable.

Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of TheBump.com, notes that the colors on the Evenflo activity center are pretty loud, which may not appeal to all parents. However, it does offer plenty to keep a baby entertained: It has over 50 songs and 18 activities, in addition to a rocking base, spinning seat and spring-loaded legs that provide bounce. Its mini music player has red flashing lights and plays nursery rhymes, while its overhead toy bar can speak 13 different phrases and sounds including letters, colors and numbers. Reviewers at TheFamilyGroove.com, an online parenting magazine, also note that the rocking feature of the SmartSteps ExerSaucer entertainer helps a baby develop a sense of balance; as the unit rocks slightly back and forth, a child will try to correct by leaning in the other direction to remain upright.

The SmartSteps ExerSaucer Active Learning Center is a heavily reviewed stationary entertainer on BabiesRUs.com, where it has an average rating of 4 stars out of 5 based on more than 230 owner-written reviews. One reviewer also notes that Evenflo offers Switch-A-Roos (*Est. $6) -- replacement toys that are interchangeable -- so it's possible to sub old toys for something different if your baby becomes bored. Among the concerns we found, a few parents complain that this unit is difficult to assemble. A few parents aren't happy it requires so many batteries (three each for four electronic toys).

Some activity centers convert to mats or tables

Most seated activity centers have a simple pivoting seat surrounded by toys, but a few models aim for a longer lifetime, converting from a seated activity center to a small play table and sometimes to a play mat. We found good reviews for this type of activity center, but be warned that they tend to take up a lot more floor space than typical models.

One such model, the Evenflo ExerSaucer Triple Fun Active Learning Center (*Est. $130), converts from a small play mat to a seated activity center, and then to an activity table (when a baby is able to stand and walk). The Evenflo Triple Fun is recommended for newborns through 24 months of age, up to 30 inches tall.

The ExerSaucer Triple Fun Activity Center features 11 toys as well as music (batteries are required). A chameleon toy plays short tunes while changing colors, and a glowing globe features pictures of an ape, bird and cat. The center also offers a squeaky frog, a jingling koala bear and a butterfly that are suspended from the overhead toy bar. This activity center has a blue base, teal legs and a green plastic top that holds the various toys. It folds flat and includes a carrying handle, so it's easy to store when not in use. This ExerSaucer has three different height settings and a landscaped tray designed to keep the toys closer to the child. The seat pad is machine washable.

The Triple Fun Activity Center is cited in a number of short reviews at About.com, BabyGizmo.com and TheFamilyGroove.com; all reviewers like that it can transition from a play mat to a seated center to a play table. Parents like it too; in about 65 reviews at ToysRUs.com, it maintains a solid 4-star average (out of 5). Parents like the variety of music and sounds when used as a seated activity center, although some say it's a bit loud. Feedback on the other stages of this activity center is a bit mixed; parents say the play mat is not that exciting, offering only two toys with no sound effects, and some parents wish the table (when used in table mode) was sturdier. Several reviewers also say it's difficult to put together. Still, the majority of reviewers are pleased by their child's reaction to the toys and appreciate that it can hold a child's interest for many months.

The Bright Starts Around We Go Activity Station (*Est. $80) can't be used as a play mat, but it does convert from a seated activity center to a play table. On this model, the seat is mounted on the outer rim of the table, so babies can push and pull themselves all around the outside of the table, rather than being seated in the middle. The seat can be removed when the child is older. The current model is the Doodle Bugs Activity Station. The 20 toys on the activity table include an electronic piano that plays silly sounds, a frog toy with a mirror and swirling beads, a rattling turtle, a spinning dragonfly and much more. It's recommended for children 4 months and older who are less than 25 pounds. Three C batteries are required to power the sound and light features.

The Bright Starts activity center takes up a lot of floor space, so you might want to check it out in person to see if you have room for it. This activity center gets about 400 owner-written reviews on Walmart.com, where three-quarters of parents give it a perfect 5-star rating. Among less enthusiastic reviews, most of the complaints are about assembly, which takes as long as two hours for some parents. Even then, some say the parts don't line up properly. A few parents also wish that the table and seat height were adjustable to fit smaller or taller kids.

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Baby Einstein Discover and Play Activity Center
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from Amazon.com
New: $79.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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Evenflo ExerSaucer Triple Fun - Jungle
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New: $119.99 $114.99   
In Stock.
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Evenflo ABC SmartSteps ExerSaucer
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from Amazon.com
New: $99.99   
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Evenflo Switch A Roo, Pink Purse
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New: $5.99   
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Bright Starts Around We Go Activity Station, Doodle Bugs
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New: $89.99 $89.98   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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