When I was about to have my boy, friends and family started to give us many things, and a playpen was among those. Since I haven’t got a crib yet, I tried to prepare the playpen to see if my boy can sleep in it comfortably, and I have some findings from this experiment.
So can a baby sleep in a playpen instead of a crib? Yes, but it depends on the type of playpen. If the playpen comes with a mattress, your baby can usually sleep in it, if not it usually means it’s not meant for sleeping. Some manufacturers will tell you if the playpen can be used for sleeping or not.
Our son slept in a playpen until he was around six months old, then we moved him over to the crib because that was the age limit for sleeping in playpens. Let’s look at how to choose a suitable playpen and removing playpen hazards.
Things to check if the playpen is suitable for sleep
If you want your baby to sleep in a playpen, then these are the few things to take note of when you’re looking for one.
1. The mattress matters
The mattress must firmly cover all sides and leave no gaps, any gaps can cause your baby to fall into it, and that can be very dangerous. Even if the gap is not large enough for your baby to fall in, if it is big enough for your baby’s face to fall in, it’s dangerous.
Babies cannot turn much by themselves, so if their face gets trapped in the gap, they may suffocate. Try pressing the sides, and if it can expand and create gaps when you push it, then it’s a big no as your baby’s body weight may create that gap if he falls to the side.
The CPSC has also found that soft bedding can be a cause for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) [source], that is why some mattresses provided by playpens are not soft bedding. Fortunately, the mattress from the playpen is not the soft type. Here’s how it looks like.
Don’t use extra mattresses, don’t place cushions, soft toys, blankets, pillows, or any other soft materials. The CPSC has found that these things are one of the causes of SIDS. Babies do not need to use pillows, so you don’t need to put one in and make sure the room temperature is not so cold that you need to use a blanket.
2. The playpen must be sturdy
Sturdiness is important because when your baby becomes a toddler, he will start to prance about on the playpen, you do not want the playpen to tip over when your toddler bumps into it, lean on it or sometimes, ram into it. It can cause serious injuries to your toddler if it does tip over.
Most playpen in the market today can be flimsy, though it’s likely that you won’t know until you buy one back and try it yourself. If you’re buying from places like Amazon, check the reviews and find parents that talk the playpen’s sturdiness.
The playpen I was using was pretty sturdy, but when I compare it to a crib, I realized that the crib is far sturdier, especially those that come with stabilizer bars at the bottom.
When you get it, make sure you install it properly. Our first experience in installing the playpen wasn’t good, and we had difficulty figuring it out because it didn’t have a manual (it was a hand-me-down), and maybe because it was a used one, it didn’t work perfectly. We got it working in the end, but if you install it incorrectly, the playpen can feel very flimsy.
3. Playpens with mesh sides
If your playpen has mesh sides, make sure that the holes are not too big, a quarter inch at most. We don’t want them sticking their fingers inside and getting trapped. We don’t ever want our baby to get trapped because when they do, they can’t turn around if they need to breathe. The CPSC has also warned that mesh sides have caught the buttons of children’s clothing and resulted in strangulation. [source]
The quality of the mesh side can vary from brand to brand. I recommend that from time to time, you check the mesh sides for rips and tears. If holes appear, you can sew them back if the hole is not too big, or patch them up with fabrics. Mesh sides are the side with holes where you can see through the playpen.
Mesh sides are good because the tiny holes will allow your baby to breathe if his face is on it. Cribs have hard sides so your baby will have breathing space, but most playpens have fabric or nettings at the side, and if it is fully covered up, your baby may suffocate if his face is on it. So when you patch it with fabric, make sure it is not too big as to create this risk.
4. Bassinets in playpens
Some playpens come with bassinets, ours did. Take note, though; these bassinets cannot hold as much weight compared to the playpen itself. Check the manual, but generally, bassinets can only hold around 15 pounds (around 7 kilos). The other indication to stop using the bassinet is when your baby can sit up.
It may be a good idea to stop using it when he shows signs of sitting up as babies tend to surprise us with their growth and development. Your baby may one day manage to climb over the playpen without you knowing it.
Depending on the height of the bassinet, it can become dangerous if your baby can tip over and fall outside of it, so if there’s any indication that this can happen, stop using it. Make sure to secure the bassinet securely to the playpen by using all available straps. Some playpens use zippers, make sure it’s all zipped up.
There are benefits to using the bassinet. Playpens can be deep, and you may need to bend down a lot to carry your baby. By using the bassinet, you don’t have to bend as far down. I appreciated this. As far as I know, it’s also the only reason to use the bassinet.
Removing all playpen hazards
Aside from choosing the right playpens, there are also hazards to take note, these hazards may not come from the playpen itself. Also, I did not create this list myself, it’s from the CPSC documentation where you can view from the source.
1. Playpen not installed properly
When I first got the playpen, I had a tough time installing it. Later I found out that I was doing it completely wrong! When you install the playpen wrongly, the side rails may collapse, and your child can get trapped in the V shape created by two sections of the rail.
Here’s a handy video, check it out if you find it difficult to install or not sure if you did it right. The man covers many aspects of setting up the playpen so skip to the parts that are relevant to you.
2. Protruding rivets
If you notice any protruding rivets or any other components sticking out, check if you have installed the playpen correctly. If you have, try to see if you can use something to cover it. These things have snagged children’s clothing and cause strangulation before.
3. Large mesh and mesh pockets
We talked earlier that the mesh size cannot be bigger than a quarter inch. This is a guideline given by the CPSC that most manufacturers in recent years are following. But if you have hand-me-downs, check it. It can trap children’s clothing buttons and cause strangulation.
Also, if you get a playpen that can lower one side down, a mesh pocket can be created after it’s lowered down and can become a suffocation hazard for young children.
4. Drapery or blinds near the playpen
Make sure that your playpen if away from windows if you have drapery or blinds because these things can cause strangulation too. For me, I have nothing hanging around the playpen that can be within reach of my son, not even those we hang as toys. I place his playpen at the edge of the room where there are only walls.
5. Pillows, blankets, and toys inside the playpen
Babies do not need pillows; my son was around 18 months old when he even showed any signs of enjoying a pillow. Typically, they may start to use a pillow between the age of two to three.
The best playpen environment is one that has nothing inside it. Follow the mattress rule we talked about earlier, and then make sure there are no blankets, toys, and especially plastic bags! There should be no plastic bag around them. It’s a serious suffocation hazard.
While the bedroom below looks lovely and fun, it can be dangerous to your baby. You can still make your baby’s room look very nice and yet safe. I’ll show you my son’s bedroom later to give you an example.
If you’re worried that your baby is cold, regulate the temperature of the room and put warmer clothes on him. When I used the blanket, I tucked it in very tightly at both ends, but it doesn’t work. When I check on him during the night, the blanket would have been strewn about and could have covered his face. It’s best not to use one.
Regarding toys, keep it to the minimum. I do put some inside the playpen, but it’s against what the experts recommend. If you decide to put some, make sure it cannot cover your baby’s face or cause any kind of suffocation.
An alternative sleeping area besides playpens and cribs
I have tried letting my baby sleep in a playpen first, then moving him to a crib, and then moving him to sleep on the floor. Among the three methods, I found that sleeping on the floor gave the most advantages.
- It’s the cheapest.
- They can sleep in it from three months old to their teens.
- I don’t have to worry about him climbing out of his sleeping area and injuring himself.
- There’s enough space for me to sleep with him.
- Montessori supports it.
If you are planning to get a playpen, why not skip the crib when he is six months old and go straight to sleeping on the floor? Here’s my son’s room’s latest setup. The whole room is built to follow the Montessori method.
At 19 months old, he knows how to take his clothes and diapers when it’s time for a bath or a change. He has his play area inside the teepee, and he puts the dirty clothes into the laundry basket in front of the teepee, all these without any help.
I used only a month to train him on how to do things by himself, and it is extremely satisfying to see him succeed. You can train him even if he sleeps inside a playpen or crib, but giving him free roam in his room made the training much faster and effective.
Comparison between a playpen, crib, and sleeping on the floor
After using all three methods, here are my findings on which method is best for babies and toddlers to sleep in.
Sleeping on the floor is my clear choice now. When I have my second child, I will put him or her in a crib for the first three months, then move to the floor by month 4. While playpens these days allow babies to sleep in it, I find that my baby sleeps better on the crib and the floor, so no more playpens for me.
Which playpen is the best for sleeping?
Ok, let’s list out the criteria we have for a sleep playpen.
- Safe mattress
- Sturdy playpen
- Mesh sides no larger than a quarter-inch
- Has a bassinet
- No protruding rivets
- No mesh pockets
There are many playpens in the market today that fit those criteria, but my pick will go to this playpen in Amazon. It meets all the criteria, it’s very sturdy and has a changing station!
The changing station is a very nice feature to have as you can change your baby’s diapers at a comfortable height. The hand-me-down that I have had this feature, and it made life easier. I won’t choose a playpen without one.
Handling toddlers climbing out of playpens and cribs
If you continue to use the playpen or crib, there will come a time where your toddler will pick up the escape artist profession. This seems like the favorite profession for toddlers! I got my son to sleep on the floor before he started to get out of his crib, but even on the floor, he tries to get out of the fence I initially set up!
What if they fall from the crib or playpen? The biggest concern is that they injure themselves, and sometimes, the fall can be fatal or cause permanent damage, that is why it is so important for us to handle the situation properly.
I strongly suggest that you head over to this article to read on how you can deal with this situation. I will teach you how to evaluate if the crib is still suitable for use, how you can prolong using the crib even when he starts to climb out, how to deal with them climbing out eventually, and most importantly to childproof your toddler’s room. There will also be a bit more info on sleeping on the floor if you’re interested.
Should I let my baby sleep in playpens prepared by hotels? No, please don’t unless you have requested for your hotel to show you photos of the playpen. The hotel we went to promised us a crib, but it turns out they couldn’t differentiate between a crib and a playpen.
Worse, the playpen they gave us did not even have a mattress! The surface wasn’t even because of the lack of it. No one can sleep on that surface, so I let my baby sleep with us on the bed, something I highly do not recommend because we could have easily rolled over him.