baby sleeping pack n play mattress

Pack N Play Mattress 101: The Evidence-Based Safety Guide

Jul 28, 2021

Pack N Play Mattress 101: The Evidence-Based Safety Guide

Ahead: Everything you need to know about Pack N Play mattresses to keep your baby safe.

Pack N Play mattress pads are notoriously thin.

In fact, they’re less than one inch thick.

If you’re wondering whether it’s safe to swap out a playard mattress with a thicker one—or add a supplemental mattress on top—you’re in the right place.

baby sleeping pack n play mattress

This guide will answer common questions about whether it’s possible to (safely) make a playard mattress more comfortable.

And unlike the vast majority of others on the subject, this guide is based on scientific evidence, not personal anecdotes or opinions.

Below, you’ll see what the CPSC, the AAP, and Graco themselves have to say.

Let’s dive in!

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pack n play mattress safety

Why are Pack N Play mattresses so thin?

Playard mattresses are significantly thinner than crib mattresses for a very important reason: to minimize the risk of suffocation.

As printed on the warning label printed on the Pack N Play itself,

“Unlike cribs that have rigid sides, the playard has flexible sides.

As a result, the playard mattress/pad is specially designed to prevent suffocation.

The playard mattress has a solid base, a certain length and width, and is less than one inch thick in order to meet safety standards.”

pack n play mattress warnings

If the mattress inside the playard is too thick, an infant can become wedged between the mattress and the wall of the playard.

playard mattress danger

Source: CPSC

Related: How Long Can Baby Sleep in a Pack N Play?

Is it safe to swap out the mattress that came with your Pack N Play?

No.

Critically, the mattress that came with your Pack N Play was safety tested with the playard as a unit.

Replacing a Pack N Play mattress is akin to swapping out the buckles on your child’s car seat with something ‘more comfortable’ you found online.

In both cases, something known to be safe is replaced with something untested—or worse—known to be unsafe.

It’s not a coincidence (or a missed business opportunity) that Graco doesn’t sell stand-alone Pack N Play mattresses.

In order for a playard to pass federal safety standards, the structure and the mattress must be tested together as a unit.

pack n play mattress safety warning

“Use ONLY mattress pad provided by Graco.”

Is it safe to add a mattress topper to a Pack N Play?

No. It is never safe to add a mattress topper to a Pack N Play.

Anyone who tells you differently isn’t familiar with the scientific evidence.

Or they’re trying to sell you a mattress pad.

Read this heart-wrenching story about a 4.5-month-old baby: “Garret suffocated because of the supplemental mattress”

The AAP explicitly states,

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

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.”

In regard to supplemental mattresses for playards specifically, the CPSC warns:

“Because of the extra [padding], 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.”

Here is a visual from the CPSC:

cpsc playard mattress danger

As you can see in the image on the right, the supplemental mattress created a 2.5-inch gap between the mattress and the side of the playard. This is an entrapment and suffocation hazard.

IMPORTANT

If you’ve added a supplemental mattress to the playard at any point in the past, unfortunately, the structure is no longer safe for sleep.

The added mattress changes the structural integrity of the Pack N Play by stretching out the mesh, making it an unsafe sleeping environment.

(You can still continue to use the playard for supervised playtime, though!)

Is it possible to safely make a Pack N Play more comfortable?

Yes, but mostly no.

Even if the Pack N Play mattress feels hard… Even if it seems thin… Even if your baby won’t sleep on it…

No padding should be added to a Pack N Play to make it more comfortable.

No supplemental mattresses, no mattress toppers, and no layers of blankets.

Any sort of “baby hack” that you may come up with at home to make a Pack N Play more comfortable has either

The only safe way to make a Pack N Play more comfortable for sleeping is to add a cozy sheet like this one. (More on this below).

There are also plenty of SAFE tricks you can try to help your baby sleep. We’ll cover those in a moment.

Pack N Play Sheets: are they necessary 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.

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.

Related: How to Clean a Pack and Play (Step by Step Guide)

Some good news: There are safe ways to help your baby sleep in a Pack N Play

The only reason you want the Pack N Play to be more comfortable is because you think it will help your baby sleep, right?

So let’s talk about that.

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

Here are some safe tips you can try:

How to get baby to sleep in a Pack N Play

  • 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 them STAY asleep. So try putting baby down when they look like they’re about to fall asleep. Always give baby a chance to settle themselves.
  • 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.

When you’re traveling and are away from your baby’s usual sleep environment, things are a bit trickier.

The very best thing you can do is mimic your bedtime routine and re-create the usual sleep conditions as closely as possible. You may have to get a little creative.

Here is everything we did during a recent trip to get Aden to sleep in his Pack N Play. (It worked amazingly!)

Getting our baby to sleep in a Pack N Play while traveling

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

Related: Are Supplemental Bassinet Mattresses a SIDS Risk?

FAQs about Pack N Play mattress pads

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:

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.”

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.

It’s critical for the safety of your child to use a mattress that has been safety tested with your specific Pack N Play model.

As we’ve discussed at length, using a supplemental mattress to make your Pack N Play more comfortable would be a serious suffocation hazard.

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

Final thoughts on Pack N Play mattress safety

Be careful: There’s a whole lot of unsafe non-evidence-based advice out there surrounding infant sleep.

Don’t let a mom on Facebook or a daddy blogger’s sales pitch convince you to put your child’s life at risk.

Thankfully, if you’ve read this entire evidence-based guide, you’ve got a strong handle on the safety no-nos of buying a supplemental Pack N Play mattress.

If you’d like to learn more about evidence-based safe sleep, check out the following articles…

Articles related to Pack and Play mattress safety:

Pack N Play Mattress 101: The Evidence-Based Safety Guide