Penned in?

As a baby and toddler, I loved my playpen. It was a secure place full of toys and books, and my Mum tells me that I often asked to get inside even if I didn’t need to be. Therefore, planning in advance, I decided to start investigating playpen options for our own little one… only to find to my surprise that there are hardly any!

It appears the tide has turned against playpens. Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing any in the houses of my friends and family who have children. The fashion now seems to be to let toddlers roam free around the house rather than “incarcerate” them in “Guantanamo” as some opine on forums such as Mumsnet. And Babycentre notes that “some experts feel that playpens can restrict children, and in the past they have been overused.” The general feeling seems to be handle playpens with caution.


Fancy a onesie to match?

I think a lot of the negative press about playpens may derive from horror stories of babies being left in there all day without attention or amusement. They can look like mini prisons (although if you took the legs off a cot, it would be very similar!) and a lot of homes wouldn’t necessarily have the space to accommodate one either. The argument that babies need to explore their environment and require stimulation is a trickier one. This seems to depend on the child and the contents of the playpen. A baby that is keen to investigate its surroundings may become bored in a playpen, whereas one capable of amusing themselves – like I was – could thrive. However, even the most imaginative child wouldn’t be happy in a bare playpen – it needs to contain toys and appropriate learning materials for the baby to really benefit. I don’t see how the location of an inviting and stimulating environment makes much difference whether it is in a playpen or the corner of a room; at least in the playpen you know the baby is safe.

The paediatric nurse Meg Zweiback comments on her website that “it’s funny how we can feel comfortable about strapping an active baby into a car seat, a stroller, or a backpack but still feel as if there is something ‘too’ confining about a playpen.” Obviously there are safety concerns with her examples, but it is interesting when you begin to compare a playpen with the far more popular bouncy chair: both are physically restricting, but at least the baby can move around within the playpen’s boundaries and would have more opportunity to explore.

One major benefit of having a playpen is that you can put the child in it for a brief time – not all day – while you cook, do housework, shower, go to the loo etc. Yes, I know it’s important for children to see their parents in the bathroom for potty training purposes but do they really need to watch every single episode?! You can of course use a sling for the cooking and housework but I might feel uncomfortable if I’m boiling water or making a stir fry, for example.

So what ARE our options?

John Lewis sell two playpens: this beech number made by BabyDan (£145)…

playpen 1

…and this more basic white metal one from Lindam, which also doubles up as a stair gate and/or fire guard (£60).

playpen 2

You can also buy fabric playpens that look less jail-like, such as this one from Mothercare which is also made by Lindam and doubles up as a stairgate (£89.99):

playpen 3

A few other retail outlets such as Kiddicare and Toys R Us also sell playpens, so there are a few available out there if you’re prepared to look – I’ve hardly seen any in the baby catalogues though.

I think what we need to do is see what our baby’s personality is like first, as well as the reality of our circumstances (I might not be able to let them out of my sight after all!) and then make a decision whether or not to invest in a playpen. We have already been given an activity mat, which may well be enough entertainment. In the meantime we will probably need to get a travel cot sooner rather than later, and it sounds like they can happily double up as playpens… so we can practice with that first and see how it goes!

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