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Playpens and Play Yards: Are They Good or Bad for Your Child’s Well-Being and Development?

Updated on April 7, 2021 by Melanie Pierce

In the olden days, (you know, when I was a kid!) playpens were a common thing in just about every home with a baby or toddler. Touted as a way to free up mom’s hands so that she could get things done without Johnny wreaking havoc around the house, it was a modern marvel of that time.

Playpens vs Baby Gates and Babyproofing

Nowadays, despite the big push for making sure that our babies are protected from every possible household hazard, playpens have largely fallen into disuse and have even become synonymous with neglectful parenting. Instead, simply babyproofing the whole house or using baby gates seems to have risen in popularity.

Despite the criticism they have received, however, many parents do still rely on playpens to help them keep their child safe while they work around the house, cook, shower, or otherwise are too pre-occupied to keep both eyes fully on their little one. But, in restricting our children in this way, are we doing more harm than good?

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Weighing It Out

It’s a tricky question to answer and the truth is, there are some pretty strong opinions out there on this subject! The truth is, it’s a lot easier to keep a baby penned up than to baby proof an entire house or room. And chances are, you might even have more success with keeping them physically safe if they are physically detained. But, we all know that physical safety is just one part of the equation.

Baby Jail ??

Have you ever referenced a playpen as “baby jail” or heard someone else call it that? Yeah, me, too! Because let’s be real, confining your child to a small space of this nature looks like jail and almost definitely feels like jail to them! In fact, many kids spend the better part of their time in one trying to get out or at least crying to be taken out. For this reason, it can be deduced that psychologically it probably isn’t the healthiest option, especially if overused.

Science or Studies...

But, does that mean that using one is just straight-up bad for a child’s well-being and development? Unfortunately, it’s not like there have been any big studies done on either the physical or mental effects of playpen use that we can use to pinpoint the science on the subject. So we are left with anecdotal stories, schools of thought, and lots of opinions on both sides.

Thoughts from a Natural Parenting Group:

Recently, I asked a group of moms in a natural parenting group what their thoughts on the subject are. The vast majority of them agree that, if used in extreme moderation, playpens and play yards can be a useful tool and aren’t necessarily harmful. But that overall, they have found their use to be very limited and usually only rely on them for travel or short naps.

However, these moms also expressed a concern that conventional use oftentimes leads to overuse and reliance on them. And the takeaway with this problem is that even parents who don’t mean to neglect their children may inadvertently do so because of the sheer convenience factor.

This was very eye-opening and something that should lead us to give pause and consideration. How often do we, as parents, out of simple exhaustion look for ways to make everything easier? Playpens and play yards definitely can help fill this gap for us but also we need to monitor our own use of anything that may keep us zoned out of baby’s overall needs.

Finding Balance

It’s not just playpens, either. What about screens and TV time? What about when we mix the two? Though these can be tools to help us distract our children or contain them, we must remember that children need more parental interaction, space to move around, real-life adventure, and tactile experience to fully develop in the way their minds and bodies need.

Yes, we want to keep our children from getting into dangerous situations and keep our sanity but equally, we want to preserve their sanity and well-being, too! This means that we definitely need to practice moderation when severely restricting our children’s movements. It’s all about balance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping your baby contained. We do it when we babywear (hello, natural parents!), when we strap them into a car seat, or when we secure them into a highchair or stroller. But, the important thing is that just like we wouldn’t leave them strapped into anything too confining all day, we also shouldn’t leave them too long in a playpen, pack’n’play, or play yard, either.

Making the Playpen Attractive

When we do need to use these tools, it is also important to make the experience as pleasant for them as possible. Keep it nearby where you are working so that you can still interact with and talk to your child. (They really aren’t designed to be used without supervision anyway!) Keep highly desirable toys in the play space that they can’t access anywhere else so that they don’t think of it as punishment, but fun time! And most importantly, watch your baby’s cues for when they have had enough and need more space to roam.

Safety is a Two-Way Street

Another thing to consider is that if you feel like you will need to use a playpen more often, make a point to buy an over-sized one or a large play yard instead of something small. Your child needs to be able to practice walking and crawling and will need the extra room. Alternatively, perhaps it would even be better to simply use a super wide gate and create a large play space in one area of your house during waking hours and save the playpen just for nap time or travel.

One last point that I want to address is that sometimes in an attempt to keep our little ones safe, we inadvertently create different problems. Any kind of playpen or play yard has the potential to introduce a certain amount of risk itself. This could be just from the way it is manufactured, with hard bars that can be banged against, sharp edges, pinching spots, or other such random parts that aren’t soft and cushy.

Furthermore, toddlers who are learning to climb will inevitably attempt to climb over and out of most playpens. This could cause the structure to tip and fall or your child might actually get out (or fall out!) and you may not even realize it. For those reasons, it is best to eliminate any playpen or play yard when your child reaches this stage and try something different. Keep in mind their limitations and use them wisely!

Conclusion

We hope you have found these insights useful and we encourage your feedback! Let us know in the comment section below what your opinion is! We want to hear from you!


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