Play yards are much different from the plain rectangular units with bars that were common many years ago. While basic versions are available, most now have mesh sides, and the standard play yard now includes such features as bassinets, changing stations, mobiles and canopies. Most styles are designed to be easily collapsible for use in different areas of the home, on vacation or at grandma's house. Some portable play yards are designed to fit in small spaces or fold so compactly that they can fit in a standard suitcase, while others have carrying bags and handles. Prices range from $70 for simpler standard play yards, to $200 for models with lots of extra features. Travel play yards range from $45 to $250.

Outdoor play yards are also available, constructed of metal or hard plastic that can withstand the elements. These styles can be used indoors to provide a safe space for baby to play in a large room or area that hasn't been childproofed, and some owners use them to block off a Christmas tree or fireplace. These styles vary greatly in price as well, ranging from $70 to $170 and up, depending on whether you decide to purchase extensions to add square footage to the play area.

Play yard recalls

Like most baby products, play yards are subject to periodic recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Experts are quick to warn that no play yard -- or any baby safety product -- is intended to be a substitute for direct supervision. Children should never be left unattended in a play yard. That said, there have been a few safety issues related to the construction of play yards. In 2009, there have been four: Kolcraft, Simplicity and Fisher-Price (Rainforest models manufactured and sold by Simplicity) have all been recalled due to side rails collapsing, posing a fall or entrapment hazard to children. Eddie Bauer Soothe & Sway Play Yards were recalled as a result of a defect in the rocking bassinet feature, which could tilt even when it is secured by straps to keep it from rocking, or fail to return to a level position when it is in rocking mode, causing an infant to roll to the side and possibly become wedged or pressed against the side or bottom of the bassinet, posing a suffocation risk.

Specific models subject to these recalls and information about how to return the products and receive replacements or repair kits can be found on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website. Before purchasing a playpen, it's wise to check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website to be sure the model you're considering hasn't been recalled.

Experts offer the following safety tips and buying advice for selecting a play yard:

  • Try out a play yard in the store before buying if possible. This will give you a better idea of the size of the playpen and how easy it is to handle.
  • Look for carrying bags, easy setup and teardown features, and compact size if you plan to travel with your play yard. Although most play yards are portable, these features improve the convenience of traveling with a playpen. Some even fold up small enough to fit in a suitcase -- a real plus if you'd like to take it on an airplane.
  • Bassinets provide a comfortable place for small babies to nap. Bassinets are removable attachments that are usually recommended for babies up to 15 pounds. Some play yards come complete with a bassinet accessory, while others might offer them as options.
  • Wheels make moving the playpen from one room to another an easy task. Rather than tear down the whole unit, you can pick up one end and wheel the playpen into another area of the home, safely locking it into place when finished.
  • Canopies will shield the sun. If you plan to use your play yard outdoors or for napping during the day in a sunny room, models with canopies can provide some shade from the sun or bright overhead lights indoors.
  • Some playpens offer nightlights. A nightlight is useful if you're using the play yard as a bassinet at night. If your baby is fussing, you can use the nightlight to see what's going on, rather than turning on bright overhead lights or lamps.
  • Holes in the mesh sides should be a quarter-inch in diameter or less. Children can get their fingers caught in larger holes.
  • Check the height of the sides. Measured from the floor of the play yard, the sides should be at least 20 inches tall.
  • Check the playpen for exposed hardware. Make sure hinges, brackets and bolts are not exposed. These hard surfaces could cause a bruise if your baby were to fall into them, and they could have sharp edges. Some models will have padding on the side rails for added protection.
  • Be sure the mattress is secured safely. Some models feature Velcro straps that fit through slots in the lower slats to be secured under the play yard where a baby can't access them. Mattresses that attach directly to the floor with simple Velcro pads can be easily lifted by older babies or can come loose and pose an entrapment hazard. In addition, the mattress should be less than an inch thick, and there should be very little space between the edge of the mattress and the side of the playpen.
  • Check manufacturer's guidelines for weight, age or height restrictions. Attachments such as bassinets and changing stations should be removed completely if your child has exceeded the recommended weight, and choosing a model with a higher recommended limit means you'll be able to use the playpen longer. It's also important to note that attachable bassinets and changers often have lower weight limits than the play yard itself.

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