Product Review: Pack and Plays

When new moms-to-be are filling out their baby registry or shopping for everyday infant must-haves, they often overlook a very important item: the portable playpen.

It's hard to look at a helpless, wrinkled newborn and understand that within a matter of a few months, she'll start to roll over, which will lead to sitting up, which will lead to crawling or scooting...you get the picture. In under a year you'll have a super-active ball of energy that needs constant supervision and guidance.

A portable playpen, often referred to as a Pack and Play (a model name created by Graco, a major producer of portable playpens), is similar to a traditional playpen in most ways. It has a cushioned floor and four netted sides to keep baby safely contained. It allows a parent to do housework, chat with a friend, or catch up on some work online without the constant worry of losing track of a mobile infant.

The only difference is what the name implies: portable playpens can be folded into a neat, rectangular package and brought along on family vacations, play dates, or wherever life calls.

The ease with which these portable playpens can be folded, carried, and reopened is usually their most important selling point. Any parent who's owned a portable playpen will tell you that some of these models require more time and brute strength to open than the average mom wants to expend on a relaxing afternoon.

There are also other considerations for parents in the market for portable playpens, such as comfort, size, and overall appearance. Some products also have extra features like attached changing tables or bassinets.

As with any other product we use around our children, safety is always the biggest concern when it comes to portable playpens. The most common safety hazard for this type of product is faulty latches. If the parts that hold up the portable playpen's walls malfunction, the resulting collapse can be dangerous for the baby inside. This was the case in the Kolkraft recall of 2009.

Always closely follow the manufacturer's directions when assembling and disassembling your portable playpen, check them for sturdiness before putting baby in, and keep an eye out for company recalls that might affect your product. The Consumer Product Safety Commission website lists up-to-date product recalls on a variety of children's products.

The Graco Pack n Play Playard with Bassinet has all the attributes of a great portable playpen. It's sturdy and strong, easy to set up and take down, and light enough to carry with little effort. It also comes with a bassinet that's a cozy sleeping spot for your little one. The feet and wheels fold to make it more compact and easy to carry. This product is perfect for family vacations or whenever you're on the go with the kids.

The Eddie Bauer Complete Care Playard is a 3-in-one luxury that will make your child's playtime more convenient and fun. The bassinet is perfect for young babies. The playard sports some wonderful features too, like soothing vibrations, music, and a nightlight. The changing table is an ultra convenient feature with a baby wipe dispenser. This product is also easy to fold and carry in the carrying case that's included.

Carter's Comfort 'n Care Playard & Changer is another 3-in-1 sleep-play-change system. It's from the leader in infant supplies, so you can expect excellent quality. It may take some practice to get the hang of folding the unit due to the multi-functional system, but the bottom line is that this unit is high-quality.

The Baby Bjorn Travel Crib Light is a neat and trendy crib for families on the go who want a more modern look for their portable play pen. Its features include a super-easy folding system and an insulated mattress to keep your baby cozy when there's a chill in the air. This product folds neatly and at 11 pounds, it's one of the lightest portable playpens out there.

The portable playpens we've looked at so far are top-rated products and therefore have been on the pricey side. What about well-built portable playpens that do their job but don't cost an arm and a leg?

The Cosco Funsport Playard is a good standard portable playpen that features a push-button folding system and an extra safety latch for added security. Some parents have found this unit difficult to fold, but overall, it seems to deliver decent quality for an excellent price.

The Dream On Me Full-Sized Playard is a large and sturdy portable playpen that's a great value for the money. Despite its strong frame, most parents find it easy to fold and tote. With its classic bright primary color scheme and basic square shape, this portable playpen might not be the most chic-looking on the market, but for a parent who values function over form, it's a really smart buy.

The Safety 1st Travel Ease Playard is designed to look and feel more like a higher-end portable playpen, with curved lines and soft padding. Function-wise, it does the job. Most parents find set-up and take-down easy and quick. This playpen works best for young babies, and may not hold up well enough to the punishment a toddler can dish out.

Money-Saving Tips

You may find that a portable playpen that works for a younger baby may not be enough for your child as he grows and becomes more active. All children's products go through a lot of wear and tear with normal use, particularly if they get passed down to subsequent kids.

Switching playpens may be costly for a family on a budget, but alternatives to regular retail buying exist to help ease the financial burden. Check out in-store sales, online specials, and other promotional offerings. You can also find portable playpens at consignment shops that sell gently used children's items. Beware of purchasing playpens from yard sales or traditional second-hand stores; they may be outdated or damaged, which can compromise their safety and lead to child injury.

You'll get more usage out of a better-quality product, so if you're able, buying a reputable product is a good investment.