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baby sleeping safely in pack n play

Safely Using a Pack ‘n Play: The Evidence-Based Guide

Nov 20, 2020

baby sleeping safely in pack n play

Safely Using a Pack ‘n Play: The Evidence-Based Guide

Nov 20, 2020

All of your Pack ‘n Play safety questions answered!

There’s no better way to tell if a product is safe for your baby than to look at the evidence.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at common questions from parents such as how long a baby can sleep in a Pack n’ Play, how much weight it can hold, how to clean a Pack ‘n Play mat correctly, and how to safely make it more comfortable for sleep.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know the difference between safe and unsafe use of a Pack ‘n Play—not based on anecdotes or survivorship bias, but on demonstrable evidence.

Disclaimers: (1) Nothing in this post should be considered a replacement for following the directions in the user manual for the specific product that you own. (2) To determine when it’s no longer safe to use a Pack ‘n Play or its attachments, go by your child’s actual height, weight, and developmental milestones. (Do not rely on national averages).

There may be affiliate links in this post. Read this disclosure policy to learn more.

PIN FOR LATER

safe answers pack n play questions pin

Pack ‘n Play 101

Let’s get the basics out of the way first…

What is a Pack 'n Play used for?

A Pack ‘n Play can serve 2 purposes: It contains your baby or toddler during supervised activities and it can be used as a crib for sleep.

Here are 3 ideas for using a Pack ‘n Play:

  • Safely contain your baby outdoors. Think: beach, pool, camping, bonfire, barbecue, gardening, etc.
  • At home, set your baby up with some toys to play with (supervised) while you sit down for a meal.
  • Use it as a portable crib when you’re traveling — or use it as your main crib at home!

FYI: Pack ‘n Play is technically a product line from the Graco brand. Due to its popularity, the term “Pack ‘n Play” has become interchangeable for any brand of “playard” or “portable play pen.” 

How big is a Pack 'n Play?

There are all different models of Pack ‘n Plays, each with different dimensions. (You can read the CPSC’s playard size standards here).

To give you a rough idea of the size of a Pack ‘n Play, most models are approximately 40 inches long, 30 inches wide, and 30 inches tall, give or take a couple of inches.

There are also mini Pack ‘n Plays that are, of course, much smaller.

Here are the dimensions of 3 popular models:

If you live in a small place, the great thing about a playard is that you can easily move it around or collapse it.

How much is a Graco Pack 'n Play?

If you’re specifically looking for a Graco brand Pack ‘n Play, the price range is roughly between $50* and $300*, depending on the bells and whistles.

Here is the cheapest, most basic Pack ‘n Play. (We have this one at my grandmother’s house, it’s great!)

*prices are subject to change

pack n play with bassinet level

Are Pack ‘n Plays safe for sleeping?

Pack ‘n Plays are indeed safe for infant sleep (overnight and naps). They are a great alternative to a crib or bassinet.

Of course, as with any baby product, there are caveats for safe use. We’ll take a look at those next…

What determines whether a Pack ‘n Play is safe?

 Manufacture date

New safety standards were implemented in February of 2013. If your playard was manufactured before then, it’s not safe to use.

pack n play safety standards cpscGraphic shared with permission from CPSC.

Condition

If you just purchased a new Pack ‘n Play and assembled it according to the user manual, you’re probably in good shape. Just double check that:

  • The sides are locked into place.
  • The mattress isn’t bubbling. (If there is a defect, contact the manufacturer for a replacement).

If you’ve already owned your Pack ‘n Play for a bit (or are buying one second-hand), there are several of things to be aware of:

  • If you’ve ever used a supplemental mattress with your playard, it’s no longer safe to use for infant sleep. (More on this below).
  • If you’ve ever repaired or modified your Pack ‘n Play, you should replace it.
  • Check that the mattress isn’t warped or bubbling. This frequently happens when the mattress has been washed incorrectly. (Tips for how to safely clean a Pack ‘n Play mat below).
  • As always, make sure the sides are locked into place and that the playard is structurally intact with no loose stitching or stretched out material.

Practicing safe sleep

The third element of making sure that your Pack ‘n Play is safe is creating the right sleep environment. Here are a few evidence-based safe sleep tips for babies:

The Pack n’ Play should be completely empty. No toys, cushions, DockATots, blankets (under or over baby), lovies, or stuffed animals.

If your playard has attachments such as a changer or napper, they need to be removed before sleep.

Always place your baby down on his back, even if you suspect he might roll over later.

If your baby is showing any signs of being able to roll over (or is already rolling), stop swaddling immediately. Read why.

 Make sure that the Pack ‘n Play is a minimum of 1 foot away from any objects, curtains, furniture, etc.

Dress your baby appropriately based on the temperature of the room to avoid overheating. Read more about how to keep your baby warm at night.

You can read all the evidence here.

Are Pack 'n Plays safe for a newborn to sleep?

Yes, Pack ‘n Plays are safe sleep spaces for newborns, as long as the caregiver is taking the proper precautions (as discussed above).

Parents also ask, “Can a newborn sleep in a pack and play without the bassinet?”

The answer is yes! It is safe for a newborn to sleep in the lowest level of the Pack ‘n Play.

Can baby sleep in the Pack 'n Play napper?

No, actually.

As surprising as this, the napper attachment on a Pack ‘n Play is NOT safe for infant sleep. Do not let your baby sleep in a “napper” even if you are supervising.

You read that right, the napper is not safe for naps. Eye roll.

Why is it called that?

In two words: irresponsible marketing.

(New legislation is very slowly, at a snail’s pace, making its way through Congress to make this illegal).

The napper is too padded and too inclined to be a safe sleep space.

Nappers are also not subject to federal safety regulations. Any safety “standards” are voluntary, which means very little. (The infamous Rock N Play, for example, met voluntary standards, yet was responsible for numerous infant deaths).

Read more about why the napper isn’t safe even if you are supervising.

Can baby sleep in Pack 'n Play instead of crib?

Absolutely! A Pack ‘n Play is a great alternative to a crib.

Can baby sleep in the bottom of Pack 'n Play?

Yes, babies as young as newborns can sleep in the bottom of the Pack ‘n Play.

It’s not necessary to use the bassinet level or bassinet attachment (which comes with some models).

Do you need sheets for a Pack 'n Play -- and are they safe?

You do not need sheets for a Pack ‘n Play. It’s fine to let your baby sleep right on the mattress. (Clean it with soap and water as needed).

If you do want to use sheets, it’s best to use the ones that are made by the manufacturer for the specific model you have.

These Graco sheets are a popular choice, but check that they’re the right ones for your playard model.

Pack ‘n Play sheets are only safe if:

  • They don’t interfere with the velcro or snaps underneath the mattress. (The mattress should be securely attached to the bottom of the play yard).
  • They don’t bunch up and aren’t loose.

It’s a challenge to find Pack ‘n Play sheets that meet the above safety criteria. If you can’t find the right ones, just skip them altogether. 

Can babies sleep in playpens?

Babies can sleep in playpens as long as they meet CPSC standards for play yards.

Some of these qualifications include:

  • Mesh or fabric sides
  • Comes with a mattress
  • Has passed safety testing for a child who cannot climb out and is less than 35 inches tall
  • Has proper latching to prevent unintended folding while in use

The simplest way to tell if your baby can safely sleep in a playpen is to take a look at your user manual, which is a legal document.

If the product is called a “play yard” in the manual, then it is required by law to have passed rigorous safety testing for infant sleep.

You should never “DIY” a sleep space by using a baby gate (or similar) with your own mattress. It’s critical for your child’s safety to only use a play yard that has been tested in its entirety for infant sleep.

baby sleeping in pack n play bassinet

Pictured: Aden in the full-sized Pack ‘n Play we have at my parents’ wearing his swaddle-transition sack.

Milestones for safely using a Pack ‘n Play

Now we’re going to talk about when you need to STOP using either the entire playard or sections of the playard.

As a reminder, when we talk about height, weight, and physical capabilities, it’s important to go by your actual child — NOT by averages for a child his age.

Also, be sure to read the user manual for the Pack ‘n Play that YOU own, as instructions can vary from product to product.

How long can a baby sleep in a Pack 'n Play?

Height, weight, and certain physical developmental milestones will determine how long it’s safe for your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play.

Most Pack ‘n Plays have a weight limit of 30lbs and a height limit of 35”. Many children will max out the height and weight limit around 2 years old.

Regardless of your child’s measurements, if he is able to climb out of the Pack ‘n Play, you should discontinue use.

Some Pack ‘n Plays have multiple levels or bassinet attachments which have their own safety standards…

Playard bassinets typically call for discontinuation of use when the infant begins to push up on hands and knees, or weighs over 15 lbs, whichever comes first. For many babies this is around 3-4 months of age.

How long can a baby sleep in Pack 'n Play bassinet?

Most Pack ‘n Play bassinets can be used until your baby reaches 15lbs or starts pushing up on hands and knees, whichever happens first.

But guess what? There’s one Pack ‘n Play bassinet with a higher weight limit!

This mini Pack ‘n Play‘s “Stage 2” can accommodate a baby up to 20 lbs.

Keep in mind, though, that the physical developmental milestone is the same: No matter the baby’s weight, discontinue use of all bassinet levels once he is able to push up on his hands and knees.

Related: How Long Can a Baby Sleep in a Bassinet?

Milestones for popular Pack 'n Play models

As we just discussed, how long a baby can sleep in a Pack ‘n Play varies from product to product.

Let’s take a look at the milestones of a few popular Graco models.

NOTE: If several milestones are listed, stop using the Pack ‘n Play based on whichever happens FIRST.

Travel Lite “mini” Pack ‘n Play (see it here!)

Stage 1 Newborn Bassinet: 15 lb weight limit; stop using when infant is able to push up on hands and knees.

Stage 2 Infant Bassinet : 20 lb weight limit; stop using when infant is able to push up on hands and knees.

Stage 3 New Toddler Playard: 35” height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.

Here’s a link to the user manual.

“Basic” Pack ‘n Play (see it here!)

30 lb weight limit; 35″ height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.

Here’s a link to the user manual.

Pack ‘n Play with detachable bassinet (see it here!)

Playard bassinet level: 15 lb weight limit; stop using when infant is able to push up on hands and knees.

Portable Bassinet: 15 lb weight limit; stop using when infant is able to push up on hands and knees.

Playard: 30 lb weight limit; 35″ height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.

Here’s a link to the user manual.

Milestones for popular non-Graco playards / travel cribs

Now, we’ll look at how long a baby can sleep in playards from other brands.

To reiterate, stop using the playard based upon whichever milestone your child reaches FIRST.

Guava Lotus (see it here!)

No weight limit! 35″ height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.
(The reason there is no weight limit is because the mattress sits on the floor).

Here’s a link to the user manual.

Baby Bjorn (see it here!)

No weight limit! 35″ height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.
(The reason there is no weight limit is because the mattress sits on the floor).

Here’s a link to the user manual.

4moms (see it here!)

30 lb weight limit; 35″ height limit; stop using when child is able to climb out.

Here’s a link to the user manual.

When to lower Pack 'n Play

This is essentially the same question as “how long can a baby sleep in a Pack ‘n Play bassinet?”

It’s time to lower the Pack ‘n Play and start using the bottom level as soon as your baby is able to push up on his hands and knees — OR — when your baby reaches the bassinet weight limit, typically 15 lbs. Go by whichever happens first.

How much weight can a Pack 'n Play hold?

Most Pack ‘n Play models can hold a maximum of 30lbs. If there are bassinet levels or attachments, those have lower weight limits, usually 15lbs.

If you’re looking for a playard that can hold more weight, consider purchasing one with a mattress that sits on the floor, as these do not have a weight limit.

Here are 2 options for Pack ‘n Plays without weight limits:

Keep in mind though, even if a Pack ‘n Play doesn’t have a weight limit, all of them have height limits and/or milestone limits.

swaddled newborn baby sleeping pack n play

Pictured: Mini Pack ‘n Play and fleece swaddle (and newborn Aden, not for sale)

Everything you need to know about Pack ‘n Play mattresses

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s discuss the importance of your baby’s mattress being as safe as possible…

Baby mattresses are notoriously hard. In playards, they’re also rather thin.

They are designed this way for a very important reason: A firm surface is necessary in order to minimize the risk of suffocation and rebreathing of CO2.

The mattress that comes with your playard has undergone rigorous (and mandatory) safety testing to ensure that it is safe for infant sleep.

And not only was the mattress tested; the mattress was safety tested as part of the entire playard as a unit. This is critical.

Any sort of DIY “hack” that you may come up with to make a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable has either failed safety testing or has not been tested. Devastatingly, in several cases, these “tricks” have even led to death.

The point is: don’t alter your playard in any way. It’s perfect (and safest) as it is. Follow manufacturer guidelines precisely — they exist for a reason.

Do all Pack 'n Plays come with mattresses?

Yes, they do!

According to Graco Consumer Services,

“All our playards come with a mattress which has been designed specifically for the playard. For the safety of your child, we do not recommend adding any aftermarket mattresses or soft bedding to playards.”

Is it safe to add a mattress to a Pack 'n Play?

No. It is never safe to add a mattress to a Pack ‘n Play.

Anyone who tells you differently isn’t familiar with the scientific evidence. (And they clearly haven’t read the giant warning labels either).

The CPSC explains this well:

Play yard mattresses are thin for a reason.

The play yard is a flexible structure. Adding extra padding, foam, or mattresses to the play yard can cause babies to suffocate in one of two ways:

1. The baby can get his or her face stuck in the added mattress or other soft items or

2. Because of the extra additions, the flexible sides of the play yard can be pressed out. This creates dangerous and deadly gaps between the side and the added material in which a baby can get trapped.

Still not convinced? Read this heart wrenching story about a 4.5 month old baby. “Garret suffocated because of the supplemental mattress.”

What mattress fits Graco Pack 'n Play?

Technically, there are lots of mattresses that may fit your Pack ‘n Play, but that doesn’t mean they are safe to use.

The only mattress that should be used in your Pack ‘n Play is the one that came with it.

Graco Consumer Services confirms what we know from the evidence,

“For the safety of your child we do not recommend using any after-market mattress or extra soft buntings in our playards. Unlike cribs which have rigid sides, the playard has flexible sides and playard mattresses are specially designed to prevent suffocation. Using a thicker or a different sized mattress/pad may allow a child’s head to get between mattress/pad and the side of the playard causing suffocation.”

Where can I find a Pack 'n Play mattress?

If you need to replace your Pack ‘n Play mattress, contact the manufacturer.

Do not purchase a mattress online, even if it appears to have the correct dimensions.

You only want to use a mattress that has been safety tested with your specific Pack ‘n Play model.

If you’re looking for a supplemental mattress to make your Pack ‘n Play more comfortable, this isn’t safe. More on that below.

How to contact Graco about a mattress for your Pack ‘n Play:

What if my Pack 'n Play mattress is sagging, warped, or bubbling?

If you suspect that your Pack ‘n Play mattress has any sort of defect, you should discontinue use and contact the manufacturer about a replacement. This is a common complaint and is typically handled efficiently.

How to contact Graco about a mattress for your Pack ‘n Play:

If I remove the supplemental mattress, is it safe to continue using the Pack 'n Play?

If you’ve added a supplemental mattress to your playard at any point, the playard needs to be replaced if you want to use it for sleep.

The additional mattress can change the structural integrity of the Pack ‘n Play by stretching out the mesh, which makes it an unsafe sleeping environment.

(You can still continue to use the mattress for supervised play time, though!)

How to clean a Pack 'n Play mat (without ruining it!)

I’ve got bad news for you: Most of the Pack ‘n Play cleaning hacks you’ve seen on other blogs should be avoided.

Cleaning your Pack ‘n Play mattress correctly isn’t just a cosmetic thing; it’s very much a safety thing too.

If you clean your Pack ‘n Play incorrectly, it can compromise the safety of the product by causing warping, sagging, bubbling, rotting, loosening, etc.

Let’s look at some “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for cleaning a Pack ‘n Play mat safely:

DO

  • Use a damp cloth with soap and water to clean the mattress.
  • Follow the directions in the user manual for how to clean the Pack ‘n Play and all of its attachments.

DON’T

  • Do NOT submerge a Pack ‘n Play mattress in water. (Do NOT soak a Pack ‘n Play mattress in the tub!)
  • Do NOT use a cleaning solution other than regular household soap or detergent.
  • Do NOT use bleach to clean a Pack ‘n Play.

Here’s a great method for SAFELY cleaning your Pack ‘n Play mat:

Materials needed: 3 rags, 2 bowls, warm water, dish soap

Step 1: Prepare one bowl of warm water mixed with soap and a second bowl of just warm water.

Step 2: Use the first rag to clean the surface using the warm soapy water.

Step 3: Use the second rag, dipped in just water, to wipe away the soap.

Step 4: Use the third rag to blot the surface dry. Then just let the mattress air dry.

If you think that extreme measures are needed to clean a really filthy playpen, you should probably just replace it. Nothing is worth compromising your baby’s safety.

How to safely make a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable

Even if the Pack ‘n Play mattress feels hard. Even if it seems thin. Even if your baby won’t sleep in it…

No padding should be added to a Pack ‘n Play to make it more comfortable. This means no supplemental mattresses, no mattress toppers, and no layers of blankets. 

The only thing that's safe* to add to a Pack 'n Play to make it more comfortable

The only safe way to make a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable for sleeping is to add a cozy sheet like this one.

* There’s an asterisk after safe because there are precautions to take here as well. Read the safety guidelines for playard sheets discussed earlier in this post.

The AAP explicitly states,

“Mattress toppers, designed to make the sleep surface softer, should not be used for infants younger than 1 year.

”Why? Because soft mattresses “could create a pocket (or indentation) and increase the chance of rebreathing or suffocation if the infant is placed in or rolls over to the prone position.”

Tips for getting your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play

I’m pretty sure every new parent in the history of the world has wondered how to get their new baby to sleep in his bassinet, crib, or playard for more than 2 seconds.

I’m being hyperbolic, of course.

But, seriously, if you’re pulling your hair out because you can’t get your baby to sleep in his Pack ‘n Play, or anywhere but your arms for that matter, you are FAR from alone. This is not only common, but normal.

Before I give you this list of tricks, I want to alert you that the vast majority of “hacks” you’ve seen on the internet for getting your baby to sleep better in his Pack ‘n Play are unsafe. We’ll get to those in a moment.

How to get baby to sleep in Pack 'n Play

Here are some safe tips you can try:

  • Warm the sleep space. Before putting baby down, place a heating pad or hot water bottle on the Pack ‘n Play mattress. Be sure to remove these objects and don’t forget to touch the surface to make sure it isn’t too hot.
  • Make baby’s sleep sack smell like you. Wear it like a scarf or put it under your shirt as long as possible before you put it on your baby!
  • Loud white noise. This one’s a game changer. Here’s my favorite sound machine.
  • Extremely consistent bedtime routine. Establish sleep cues by doing the exact same process, step-by-step, every single night. We do: bath, lotion, pajamas, sleep sack, bottle, lullaby, white noise, dark room, down in crib.
  • Make sure the room is pitch black. Either invest in some great blackout curtains, or go the cheap route and cover the windows with tin foil.
  • Put baby down drowsy but awake. You might not have much luck with rocking your baby to sleep and having him STAY asleep. So, try putting him down when he looks like he’s about to fall asleep. Always give baby a chance to settle himself.
  • Consistency, consistency, consistency. Even if it doesn’t work, keep repeating the steps each night! Stick with your routine for at least a week before you change anything.

Keep in mind:

If you’re having trouble getting your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing anything wrong.

Here’s an excerpt from an AAP article:

Sometimes caregivers — and others — associate longer sleeping with happier babies and that is another misconception, according to Dr. Moon. It’s normal and appropriate for newborns to wake up a couple of times during the night, especially if breastfeeding, said Dr. Goodstein.

What's unsafe: How NOT to get baby to sleep in a Pack 'n Play

If the tips in the previous section don’t work, unfortunately, there’s nothing earth shatteringly different to do without putting your baby’s life at risk.

There’s no magical parenting hack to safely getting your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play.

The internet (and plenty of mom bloggers) will tell you otherwise, of course.

There are tons of UNSAFE ideas for getting your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play.

Your radar should go off when you see things like:

  • Any tip for making a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable such as adding/replacing the mattress or putting a blanket underneath baby.
  • Placing a DockATot, SnuggleMe, Boppy, or any similar type of nest or cushion inside the playard.
  • Giving a baby under 12 months any sort of “security blanket” like a lovey, stuffed animal, and of course an actual blanket. (Pacifiers are safe, though).
  • The “weighted glove hack” or anything that involves simulating your presence by adding an object to baby’s sleep space.

All of these are known SIDS/SUID risks and can lead to suffocation, entrapment, and rebreathing of CO2.

Your baby’s Pack ‘n Play should be completely empty for sleep.

How to get baby to sleep in Pack 'n Play on vacation

My #1 tip for getting your baby to sleep in a Pack ‘n Play in a different environment is to mimic your bedtime routine and the usual sleep conditions as closely as possible.

Here’s everything I did during our recent trip to get Aden to adjust to sleeping in his Pack ‘n Play:

1 – We started Aden’s bedtime routine just like we always do: A warm bath followed by diapering, lotion, pajamas, and a sleep sack.

(The sleep sack is such a powerful sleep cue! Aden starts rubbing his eyes the second we put it on).

2 – We designated an official “pre-bedtime chair” to take the place of the rocking chair we normally use at home. Since it wasn’t a rocking chair, I just rocked my body back and forth.

3 – We figured out how to make the room super dark. We also played around with the placement of the playard until we found the darkest corner. 

Ways to make it really dark in baby’s room while on vacation:

[Just keep in mind when deciding where to put the Pack ‘n Play that it should be at least 1 foot away (on all sides) from any surrounding objects or furniture.]

4 – We did our exact pre-bedtime routine of a bottle and then a lullaby.

5 – Lastly, we turned on loud white noise like we do at home. Here’s a great portable sound machine.

I was blown away by how easily Aden went down to sleep in the Pack ‘n Play, despite being used to sleeping in our crib at home.

The reason this worked so well is because we already had a well-established bedtime routine and strong sleep cues.

Keep in mind that it might take a couple of nights for your baby to adjust to sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play in a new environment.

Final thoughts on safely using a Pack ‘n Play for infant sleep

If you’ve read this entire evidence-based guide, you should have a strong handle on how to use your Pack ‘n Play safely.

You know how long a baby can sleep in a Pack ‘n Play and that you should cease use based on whichever milestone happens first. You know how much weight a Pack ‘n Play can hold and when your child has outgrown it. You know how to clean a Pack ‘n Play mat without compromising its safety. You know how to make a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable by adding a compatible sheet but never additional padding.

You’re basically a guru now, congrats!

Articles related to the safety risks of trying to make a Pack ‘n Play more comfortable

Safely Using a Pack ‘n Play: The Evidence-Based Guide

Safely Using a Pack \'n Play: The Evidence-Based Guide