Baby Playpens: How to Choose One for Your Child

    Updated 26 August 2019 |
    Published 11 May 2019
    Fact Checked
    Medically reviewed by Dr. Anna Targonskaya, Obstetrician and gynecologist
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    In 1922, an American woman named Emma Read invented the first version of a baby playpen. She needed to provide fresh air and sunshine for her two small children while living in a large city with multi-story apartment buildings. Her playpen was called a “portable baby cage” and hung outside the window with supports.

    Today, playpens are used mostly for safety and convenience. They are a great option for putting a baby down while you exercise, clean, or make a meal.

    What are baby playpens? Five main types 

    Today we have many more options than parents did in the 1920s. Baby playpens are much safer and offer numerous accessories and functions. Here are the five main types of baby playpens available. 

    1. Infant play yards

    An infant play yard is a great option for keeping babies of various ages safe from other things around them like animals or older children. They are usually square or rectangular, with the base on or very close to the floor.

    This type of baby playpen is the most versatile. Some are designed for travel and pack into a carrying bag. Others have accessories for babies and parents. They are a great option when there is limited space as some can double as a bassinet for very young babies sleeping in their parents’ room.

    This is particularly helpful for breastfeeding moms since you don’t need to leave the room. With all the options available, infant play yards come in a wide range of prices. 

    2. Expandable baby gate

    Expandable baby gates are a good option when a permanent gate cannot be installed. They are made out of metal, wood, or mesh and can often be installed directly out of the box with no assembly required.

    3. Freestanding baby gate

    Freestanding baby gates are very portable. They can be used inside to prevent a baby from entering an area of the house, or they can be used outside when a fence is not available.

    They are made from either plastic or metal panels and typically come apart for easy storage. However, because they are designed to be freestanding, they may not be as stable as other types of baby playpens. 

    4. Summer baby gate

    Summer play gates differ from the others in that they usually do not have a bottom. Many look like plastic baby gates connected in a round shape. They are freestanding, with one of the panels functioning as a gate.

    They are completely portable, as many come completely apart and stack flat. They can be used inside or outside, when weather permits. Because they are usually made of plastic, they can be easily cleaned. 

    5. Playpens with a changing table

    As mentioned above, the baby playpens of today are available with so many different options. One of the options that you may find extremely helpful is a playpen with a changing table. These can be attached to the top sides of the playpen for easy access when the baby needs a diaper change.

    Many come with a section of pockets that drape over the playpen to hold diapers, wipes, creams, lotions, bottles, etc. It can then be removed for the baby to play or sleep.

    Make sure to pay attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations for height and weight when using any playpen. They are usually restricted to babies who weight less than 25 pounds and are less than 35–40 inches tall.

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    How to choose a safe playpen for your baby

    There are several things that are an absolute must when choosing a safe baby playpen. If the playpen is wooden, it should have slats that are no more than 2 3/8 inches apart, like a crib. All finished surfaces should be free of any splinters or chipping paint. If there is an attached teething guard, it should be securely attached to the rails. 

    Place a mattress at least one inch thick in the bottom of the baby playpen. There should be no exposed hinges, screws, or rivets that can injure the baby or pose a swallowing hazard. If the sides are made of mesh, the material should be woven tightly (no openings more than ¼ inch). This reduces the risk of clothing being snagged. There should be no tears or rips in the mesh or vinyl/cloth that covers the playpen hardware.  

    How to know if your child is too big for a playpen 

    Most modern baby playpens are made to accommodate children up to 36 inches tall. This is because of the required (by law) height of the sides of a playpen. When taller than 36 inches, most children can climb out or over the sides of a playpen. This could lead to injury. The US Product Safety Commission recommends that you discontinue the use of a baby playpen if your child is able to climb out of it, regardless of their height.  

    Baby playpens can be extremely helpful for parents to put a baby down in a safe place while doing different activities or to keep them away from small children or pets in the home. Remember that a child placed in a playpen or play yard should never be left unattended. These products need to be used according to the manufacturer’s guidelines in order to provide a safe place for your baby to sleep or play and give you an opportunity to get some rest, exercise, or tidy up.

    History of updates

    Current version (26 August 2019)

    Medically reviewed by Dr. Anna Targonskaya, Obstetrician and gynecologist

    Published (11 May 2019)

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