So you’re having a baby. Congratulations! That’s very exciting. You may be feeling a mix of emotions, especially if this is your first. You need a lot of supplies, and you’re just not sure which ones are worth the money and which of the others will just be in the way.
You’ve heard of pack and plays, and maybe your friends swear by them, but are they right for you? Let’s look at some of the options to determine which might be useful and what you think you can work into your rapidly growing expense sheet. Hint: it’s acceptable to have a baby shower or ask your friends and family for help.
What is a Pack and Play?
To clear the air a bit, let’s straighten out what exactly a pack and play is. Actually, Pack N’ Play is the name given to these types of playpens by the brand, Graco. However, there are plenty of other brands that sell similar products.
A pack and play is a playpen, playard, or portable crib with mesh sides that folds up into a compact package, allowing your child to sleep and play safely and making traveling much more convenient and less stressful.
Some pack and plays are pretty basic. They come with the folding portion of the playpen, a mat to line the bottom, and a bag to store it tightly when you store it away. Other pack and plays have attachments like bassinets, making it a great combo for infants who still need diaper changes. Some of the more expensive varieties come with vibrating seats and mobiles, too.
You always have the option to buy extra accessories later if you feel like you need them. There are absorbent sheets, liners, connectors for storage, changing pads, and much more. You will also notice if you shop around enough, that may pack and plays have other items that are part of a matching set like rockers, high chairs, and bedside sleepers.
History of Pack and Play
Playpens have been around for hundreds of years. Humans have been using bassinets, cribs, and other sleepers for infants for centuries. However, the first portable playpen was developed in 1987, but the son of a Graco engineer. The company first released the Pack N’ Play Portable Playard that year, and its popularity skyrocketed.
People didn’t even know they had been longing for a travel solution for their infants. Traveling was a cumbersome sport, involving carrying luggage, a car seat, and the infant in a delicate balancing act of fate. Once you arrived at your destination, you made do with what you had. You stuffed pillows under the sheets to prevent rolling, or you made a palette on the floor and hoped your baby would drift off to sleep peacefully instead of screaming about being in an unfamiliar place.
The invention of the portable playard meant you could use it as a crib at home and then take it with you when you left. Your infant was already used to their travel bed, and much more inclined to fall asleep in something they know, even if they are in a strange place.
Not only that but with the bassinet and other accessories that came later, you could set up a convenient changing station away from home for anyone who wanted to help you take care of the baby.
How to Use a Pack and Play Safely
The first thing you want to do in order to use a pack and play safely is to determine where you want to put it and then set it up according to the instructions. The setup instructions for each pack and play may differ slightly based on brand and attachments.
The pack and play is designed to be portable, so if you don’t get all of the parts locked in correctly, it won’t be stable. However, if you do set it up properly, it’s a perfectly safe place for your baby to sleep and play.
The Main Frame
To set up the main part of the pack and play, unzip the pouch it came in and remove the unit. Release the velcro holding the pad onto the main frame. Set the pad aside for now. Pull up on the side rails of the main unit until they lock into place.
The top of the main unit should now look like a rectangle, although the bottom will not yet be stable. While holding the rails in place, push down on the center disc to flatten the bottom of the unit. When the bottom is flat, it should lock into place.
Inserting the Pad
Now, grab the pad you set aside earlier. Place any sheets you may have on the pad and lay the pad flat in the bottom of the pack and play. Insert the two velcro tabs you released earlier into the holes at the bottom of the pack and play and secure them to the bottom of your main frame unit.
The Changing Table
If your pack and play came with a changing table, you can now slide the tubes into the holes at each end of the changing table. Connect the leg tubes to the underside of the bassinet in the middle of the short ends. Insert the short tubes into the changing table mounts. The leg tubes will snap into place on the rails of the pack and play and the short tubes will go in the openings at the corner of the pack and play.
If your pack and play came with a bassinet feature, you’ll see a large mesh piece with plastic connectors surrounding the edges that’s the same size as the rectangular opening of the pack and play. Before you connect it, make sure you remove the mattress pad from the bottom of the pack and play.
To connect the bassinet, simply snap the plastic connectors in place on the pack and play rails all the way around. Then insert the two metal tubes into the slots in the middle of the mesh part of the bassinet. This may seem uncomfortable for your child, but they are critical to providing structure and safety. Lastly, place the mattress pad on top of the mesh bassinet.
To connect the portable seat to the pack and play, simply insert the seat opposite the changing table and snap the connectors securely onto the rails. The bouncer wire will be inside the pack and play and will not be used for this type of application. However, upon removal of the portable seat from the pack and play, it becomes a bouncer seat you can take with you anywhere.
Parent organizers are great places to store diapers, wipes, creams, and anything else you might need for your child while using the pack and play. Just insert the clips into the parent organizer and then snap it to the end of the pack and play.
You can use the electronics module with any part of the pack and play. Once you insert batteries and attach it to the rail of the pack and play, there it will stay during all uses unless you remove it.
Toy Bar or Mobile
The toy bar or mobile attaches to the rails of the pack and play in the same way as other accessories. Simply snap the connectors to the rails where you want the toy bar or mobile to be visible to your baby. The toy bar will attach to two opposite rails and stretch across the pack and play while the mobile will only attach to one and dangle over the top.
All of the pack and play accessories slide off as easily as they snapped on. Simply remove the changing table, portable seat, parent organizer, toy bar, mobile, or electronics module by unsnapping and lifting away.
To remove the bassinet, set the mattress pad aside, remove the poles used for stability, and unsnap the connectors around the edges.
To disassemble the mainframe, remove the mattress pad and lift up on the center disc until it releases. Now push the buttons in the center of each rail until they collapse. At this point, you can fold up the entire main unit, wrap it back up in the mattress pad, secure the velcro, and insert it back into its carrying bag.
Most pack and play accessories are washable. To clean them, simply use soap and warm water to wipe them down. Most of the portable seat covers are machine washable if you remove them from the seat first. Check your instructions for other parts that may be machine washable.
What Makes a Pack and Play Safe?
Federal law mandates rigid tests to ensure the safety of all baby products, including pack and plays. These regulations are implemented by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). If you have safety concerns about your pack and play, just check out the rigorous tests it must pass.
Included in the mandatory requirements for your pack and play is a stability test. This test ensures that the pack and play won’t tip over, no matter how much force your child imposes on its sides or bottom.
Locking mechanisms are tested to make sure the pack and play will not fold in on a child. Among the other entrapment tests is floor strength safety tests to ensure the structural integrity of the pack and play. Attachments and top rails are tested to make sure a child’s head cannot get stuck.
The CPSC also implemented a minimum side height requirement so your child cannot climb in and out of the pack and play by themselves. The only thing they don’t regulate is misassembly. Your pack and play came with thorough instructions and it is up to the consumer to follow those instructions for assembly exactly.
Ways to Use a Pack and Play
There are so many ingenious ways to use a pack and play that you may have never thought of before. If you’re having your first baby, you may have a one track mind for use of your pack and play, but keep your options open for additional uses because it’ll make your purchase more than worth it.
At the Beach
If you live near the beach or you travel a lot, the pack and play provides a safe place for your baby to play, especially if you find that they don’t like the feel of the sand between their toes. Your little one will be nearby and content in a pack and play while you enjoy the sand and the water.
If your pack and play didn’t come with a canopy, you can also use a light sheet to cover the top and give your baby some extra shade. You could also prop up an umbrella in the sand to shield your baby from the sun.
In the Woods
As discussed, falling asleep in a strange place isn’t always easy, especially for a little one. If you enjoy camping with the family, take your pack and play along. It takes up a lot of room in the tent, but it will be a source of comfort for your baby and give them a safe place to sleep. If they’re crawling, it will prevent them from escaping from the tent in the middle of the night and getting lost in the woods.
If you have other children and your tent is large enough for your entire brood, you can use the pack and play as a room divider so everyone feels like they have their own space to relax. Plus, putting the baby in the middle of everyone may make them feel more secure.
At Grandma’s House
Your house may be baby proof, but that doesn’t mean everyone else’s is. If you’re traveling to a relative or friend’s house, your pack and play gives your baby a safe place to play when you need to take a quick break from chasing them around.
It gives you the peace of mind you need when someone else’s home has breakable items on the coffee table. You could always ask that these items be removed temporarily, but you can’t fix unlocked cabinets or open staircases.
In the Kitchen
Your pack and play gives your baby a safe place to play while you clean and make dinner. If you have an open floor plan and your baby can see you almost anywhere on the first floor, you can put the pack and play wherever you want.
You can go about cleaning the living room, breakfast nook, and dining room, all while keeping an eye on him. Then you can make dinner for everyone while he plays. The best part about this is that your baby won’t be underfoot dirtying everything you just cleaned.
In the Guest Room
Not only can you take the pack and play with you when you travel, but you can share your pack and play with those traveling to see you. If you have friends or family coming into town with a baby, set up a cozy guest room for them with the pack and play, giving their baby a safe place to sleep and making everyone feel more at home.
Even when your kids have outgrown the pack and play, keep it around for this reason because it will really make your guests feel welcome and make it so much easier on them to come back the next time.
Sleep Tips for Traveling
Being in an unfamiliar place makes it tough for babies to sleep, so for most of these scenarios, it is important to follow some quick sleep tips for traveling. Bring along items that smell like home to make your baby feel more comfortable. A crib sheet, a lovey, or the pack and play itself may be items of comfort for him.
Practice using the pack and play before you go to make the adjustment easier when you leave. Set up the pack and play in their bedroom or wherever they normally sleep so that the bed is different but all of the other surroundings are the same. It’s a good test run, but don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t like it right away.
Many of these concerns are alleviated if you’ve been using the pack and play all along as a playpen or an alternative napping location in your home. Your baby is already used to it and it already smells familiar.
One of the other great things about any of these scenarios is that your pack and play doubles as storage when your baby isn’t in it. You can put your belongings in it at the beach if you take your baby out to make it more secure. You can throw toys in it as you pick up the living room for guests. You can use it as diaper storage while traveling to visit family. Its versatility is endless.
Pack and Play Brands
While Graco pioneered the Pack N’ Play, there are plenty of other brands that manufacture similar items. In fact, many of them are direct competitors, with the same optional accessories, the same dimensions, and the same assembly instructions.
While this is by no means a conclusive list, some of the top brands of playard manufacturers include:
- Baby Bjorn
- Baby Trend
- Children’s Factory
- Dream on Me
- Early Childhood Resources
- Kwik Tek
- Little Tikes
- Lotus – best for travel, backpack
- Lucky Bums
- Mamas and Papas
- Melissa & Doug
- Mia Moda
- Mountain Boy Sledworks
- North States Industries
- One Step Ahead
- Phil & Teds
- Plan Toys
- Radio Flyer
- Safety 1st
- Skip Hop
- Summer Infant
- Tiny Love
- Whitney Brosa
As you can see, there are plenty of options from which to choose. Not every brand is available in every country; however, most are available online from the manufacturer’s website, retailers who sell children’s products, or Amazon.
Graco is the most well-known. They patented the name Pack N’ Play, and much like Kleenex or Bandaid, it’s now the term we use for everything, regardless of brand. While they certainly have the most variety, they’re not always the best solution for everyone because there are so many alternatives.
For instance, Baby Trend provides the best value because they have very similar products with all of the same features and accessories at a fraction of the cost. You are likely paying much less for a brand that’s not as well known, so while some don’t mind, others will choose a better-known brand for peace of mind.
Joovy is the most affordable. They don’t have many options from which to choose, and the options they do have are pretty basic, but if you’re looking for an affordable playard to set up and leave in one spot, this is the one. If you don’t need the extra attachments and just want something simple, this is your best option.
Lotus provides one of the best solutions for traveling. The main unit folds up neatly into a backpack that you can sling onto your back and go. It’s easy to carry, affording you more hands to carry the baby or other luggage. It doesn’t come with the attachments, but if you do a lot of traveling, those are a hassle anyway.
Pack and Play Features
As we’ve already discussed, some pack and plays come with features like bassinets, changing tables, parent organizers, musical components, portable seats, mobiles, canopies, and toy bars. However, even if your unit didn’t come with any of these, you can typically buy them separately if you find you need them later.
The most desirable of the pack and play features is that the units are incredibly portable. They fold up into a self-contained package with a handle that makes it somewhat easy to carry. Some are easier than others due to size, shape, and weight, but most would be considered portable.
Some pack and plays also have wheels on two adjacent lets. While the pack and play is set up, it stands firmly on the ground with two regular legs and two locking wheels. This is a handy feature to have if you find that you constantly adjust the pack and play position in the room and don’t want to drag it across the floor or pick it up and move it.
Playpens are designed to be incredibly durable. They will last for years and withstand several different children. They are a popular choice for daycares, schools, and large families because they are well worth the investment. They’re also a common hand-me-down item. As long as you care for your pack and play, it will last for a long time.
Pack and Play Alternatives
If you’re not a fan of the look and feel of these types of playards, there are plenty of alternatives. You need to choose what’s right for you and your baby, and if that means beating your own drum, that’s totally fine
North States makes an adjustable Superyard that is comprised of freestanding gates that you attach to one another to make any size enclosure you need for your space. It’s portable in the sense that you can take it apart and set it up elsewhere if needed, and it offers you a safe place for your baby to play, but doesn’t have attachments for sleeping or changing diapers
Evenflo, Baby Care, Kidzone, and Regalo all make their own version of the Superyard as well. These are convenient because there is a gate included, so you can walk in and out of the playard to get your baby without having to bend over the side.
If you find that you can protect your baby by restricting them to certain areas with baby gates, they’re a great alternative to creating a safe place for baby to play. If your dining room is directly off of your kitchen and you can observe your baby’s play while cleaning and making dinner, then block the door with a baby gate, provide them with some age-appropriate toys, and go for it.
Purchasing Separate Items
You can always opt for purchasing all of these items separately. If you find a bouncy seat, a changing table, a bassinet, and organizers that you love, by all means, buy them. It doesn’t have to be part of a matching set for it to work. Some people find they don’t have a use for a pack and play and don’t feel it’s worth the extra money if they won’t use it.
Pack and Plays We Recommend
With so many options out there, your decision can be tough. You have a lot to think about in terms of style, price, attachments, and portability. Here are some of our top pack and play picks.
Graco Pack ‘n Play Playard Bassinet Changer with Cuddle Cove Rocking Seat
This one has all the bells and whistles. The only thing missing is the toy bar or mobile, but you can still purchase one separately that snaps easily into place if you need it. This option from Graco is great if you anticipate using every attachment while your baby is little and then using it as a playpen a lot as they grow.
- Lots of attachments
- Long life
- Can use from birth to several years old
- Available from many retailers
- Not as portable with all the extras
- More expensive than others
North States Superyard Colorplay Ultimate Playard
If you don’t anticipate needing any attachments at all and you know you won’t travel with it, you don’t necessarily need a self-contained unit. This colorful playpen has panels that you can snap into place and extend as needed to make the space as big as you want.
They have non slip base pads to hold it firmly in place so your child can’t scoot it around or knock it over and it weighs less than twenty pounds so it’s easy to pick up and move around if you need to.
- Can set up anywhere
- Only functions as a playpen
- No accessories or attachments
Summer Infant Pop N’ Play Portable Playard
This is a lightweight but durable playpen with a unique shape. It doesn’t have any attachments, but it does have soft fabric at the bottom and the design is different than any other playpen on the market. The bright green color may be appealing, as well. The one-step assembly and closing make it easily collapsible and portable, plus it has a shoulder bag for easy storage and travel.
- Hexagonal design
- Super easy assembly
BABYBJORN Travel Crib Light
This playpen is modern and stylish. It’s lightweight and comes with a carrying bag. You can assemble it in just one step and it has no individual parts that you have to attach or additional assembly out of the box. The soft mattress gives your child a comfortable and safe place to play.
- Sleek, modern design
- Easy setup
4moms Breeze Playard
This design is a bit futuristic and it’s also easy to assemble. Push the middle down to expand it and set it up and then pull back up on the middle part again for it to fold neatly back up. The carrying bag is easy to store and take on the road.
- Optional attachments
- One button setup and take down
Find here more Pack and Play Reviews and Comparisons:
- The Guava Family Lotus Everywhere Travel Crib vs. The Nuna Sena Mini Playard Travel Crib
- Graco Pack ‘n Play Playard Jetsetter vs. 4Moms Breeze Playard
- Nuna Sena vs. Lotus Comparison
- Nuna Sena vs 4moms Breeze Comparison
- Nuna Sena vs Baby Bjorn Travel Crib Comparison
- Arms Reach Co-Sleeper Review
- Lotus Travel Crib vs Baby Bjorn Comparison
Pack and Play Recalls
As with any product, sometimes there are recalls due to poor design or malfunctions. Fortunately, there have not been any playard recalls lately.
The most recent recall incident according to the CPSC was in 2011 when they recalled the AOSOM wooden playpens due to a choking and laceration hazard.
None of the products we describe on our list has been recalled, nor have any similar products that we could find, so you can rest easy knowing that all of these products are safe for your child to use.
The Right Pack and Play For You
The right pack and play for you will depend on how you intend to use it. Despite the fact that the Pack ‘N Play name belongs to Graco, there are plenty of other brands, styles, and options out there from which to choose.
A pack and play is a safe solution for your baby to sleep and play, it’s great for traveling, and some even come with so many attachments that you can use for almost anything. You can use it while camping, going to the beach, cleaning the house, and so much more.
The ultimate decision is up to you now. You have to decide how much money you want to spend, what attachments you might use, and whether or not you want a traditional pack and play design or something else entirely. No matter what you choose, as long as you weigh the options and know what will work best for you, you’ll make the right choice.