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Baby activity centers

Baby activity center buying guide

Last updated: April 2014
Getting started

Getting started

A stationary activity center keeps your baby occupied and relatively safe in one spot while you do other things, such as make dinner--and maybe even eat some of it, too. You can start using one as soon as your baby can sit up unassisted (some recommend starting at about 4 months, and most by 6 months).

We think it's safer to put your baby in a stationary activity center than in a walker that could allow her to scoot into danger. If you want to add some mobility to your baby's fun, check out a walk-around activity center that lets your child scoot in a circle around a secure base. (See Types for more information on walk-around models.)

Most stationary activity centers adjust to three or more heights. Your baby will outgrow it when he's 30 to 32 inches tall or weighs 25 to 30 pounds; that‘s the maximum height and weight recommendation for most activity centers. You should stop using the activity center when your child can walk or even stand up by himself. A standing or walking child can tip it over and be injured or trapped.

What's available

Prices range from about $55 to about $120.

What does the upper end get you? Multiple toy stations, different musical melodies, and "learning toys" featuring colors and shapes, sound identification, and more.

Certification

Certification by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) signifies that a product claims to be tested and to meet the safety requirements of standards developer ASTM International. Since it is not required by law and the testing of products is not policed by any government agency, we can't say that certification is a guarantee that a product meets the standard, but we think it's a good idea to look for a certification label.

You may also find activity centers that convert into walkers. We don't recommend walkers.

Recommendations

Examine attached toys for size. They shouldn't be able to fit through a toilet-paper tube. Should they happen to break off, they could be a choking hazard.

Although most babies enjoy being in these play spaces, some don't. If you can, have your baby test-drive a unit in the store or during play dates at other parents' homes to get a sense of how he fares.

If you decide to buy an activity center, look for one with a thick, solid frame; no accessible sharp edges or exposed hardware underneath or on top; and comfortable, soft fabric edging on the sides and leg areas of the seat cushions. And any flip-down stabilizers, which a few models have to prevent the saucer from rocking, should be sturdy. You shouldn't get the feeling that they could release during use.

Some activity centers come with lots of bells and whistles--and lots of parts. You'll need a screwdriver and a good half an hour to assemble. Read the instructions beforehand and keep them for future reference. Routinely check your baby's activity center for loose fasteners or toys, worn parts, and torn material or stitching, and replace or repair as needed. You can usually order replacement parts from the manufacturer. Stop using a stationary activity center if it's damaged or broken.

Register the product online or by sending in the product registration card so that you can be promptly notified in the event of a recall. Stay alert for recalls by checking www.cpsc.gov before you shop, or before purchasing a stationary activity center second hand.

Consumer Reports has not tested or rated stationary activity centers for babies.

Types

There are basically two types of activity centers. Stationary activity centers with a solid, flat base, and walk-around models with a stable center pivot or table.

Seat in the center


Most activity centers have a circular frame with a rotating seat recessed in the center and a surrounding tray with attached developmental toys that may introduce your baby to colors, shapes, textures, animals, nature, or language.

Walk-around


Another style, the walk-around version, features a seat that rotates around a central pivot or table so that your baby can walk in a circle if she wants to, but not actually travel.

Features


Most activity centers offer toys and activities that can attract a baby's attention and promote her developing motor skills--or at least distract her for a little while. But before you shell out for a high-octane model, keep in mind that while many babies enjoy all the bells and whistles, some babies find lots of motion, sound, and light too stimulating. Keep you baby's temperament in mind when considering these activity center features.

Motion


While most activity centers offer a fabric seat that swivels and lets your baby jump up and down on his own steam, some add springs attached to the seat that allow the unit to bounce when baby moves, and create a rocking motion, which active babies might enjoy but others may not. You'll find these hybrids sold as "jumpers," or sometimes "activity jumpers."

Adjustable height


Many models offer multiple settings, so the activity center can grow as your baby grows. The height of the play tray is the key. When the tray is at the proper height, your baby's feet will touch the floor and her legs will be straight when she's seated. If your baby is on her tippy toes when she's seated, the tray is too high. If her knees are bent when she's seated, it's too low. You might have to adjust the legs (without your baby seated in the activity center) every month or so to keep pace with your baby's growth.

Seat


More expensive models might have cushy seat padding. Seat pads are typically removable for machine washing, which is a real plus. You might have to air-dry them, though. Check the care and maintenance requirements on the label or in the instruction manual. In fact, you might want to check an on-line version of the owner's manual before you buy to see how complicated it is to remove, launder, and replace the seat cushion. Since a child of that age is in diapers, there may be leaks or worse.

Toys


Although activity centers traditionally feature a play surface, many now come with attached interactive toys, such as a fun-house mirror, a spinning stoplight, picture books, and bead toys along with lights, songs, and sounds. To make these gizmos work, you'll need plenty of batteries--though it depends on the model.

In general, more-expensive models are loaded with exciting options and have lots of ways to bounce and rock so your baby feels like she's on the go. Moreover, your baby steps on a seven-note keyboard that activates "fun music" and "dancing lights," which "encourages walking," according to the manufacturer.

Skip the walk-behind

Some play stations become a walk-behind walker (beginner walkers can push it in front of them), although we don't recommend using it in that manner because a baby could easily push one--along with themselves--down the stairs, or otherwise into harm's way.

Portability


Look for an activity center that folds if you want to take it along when you travel or if you need the extra room. Practice collapsing display models in the store, if possible, to make sure that the folding mechanism works well.

Brands


Baby Einstein

More than a decade ago, the company was founded by Julie Clark, who wanted to share her love of the arts and humanities with her baby. Her intent was to create products that offered interactive experiences for her and her daughter to discover the world together. As the company grew, the Walt Disney Company noticed and acquired it in 2001. Baby Einstein offers a wide range of developmental and entertainment products for babies and toddlers. Along with activity centers, products include discovery kits, books, toys, and CDs.
www.babyeinstein.com

Bright Starts

The company was started more than 40 years ago, when a grandmother came up with a product idea for infants. Since then its parent company, Kids II, has created products that include activity centers, infant and toddler toys, entertainers, high chairs, play yards, and more.
www.brightstarts.com

Evenflo

For more than 85 years, the company has developed infant equipment, and is now one of the nation's leading manufacturers of baby-care and juvenile products. Its
products include car seats, strollers, high chairs, play yards and activity products, among others.
www.evenflo.com

Fisher-Price

Founded in 1930 by Herman Fisher, Irving Price, and Helen Schelle, whose company brought 16 wooden toys to the International Toy Fair in New York City. Those first toys quickly caught on and became the hallmarks of Fisher-Price. The company, situated in headquarters outside Buffalo, NY, makes products that include activity centers, toys, games, and much more. Fisher-Price is a wholly owned subsidiary of Mattel Inc.
www.fisher-price.com

Kidco

Incorporated in 1992, the company produces a complete line of child, pet, and hearth safety gates, and an assortment of child home-safety products designed and engineered in Denmark. Besides activity centers, the product lineup includes feeding products, Pea Pods, and Go-Pods. Available at most juvenile product retailers.
www.kidco.com

Kolcraft

The company began in 1946 in Chicago, when Leo Koltun made playpen pads out of cotton batting and oil-cloth covers for post-World War II babies. The company continued to grow, introducing the innovative Carri-Cradle in 1979, the first combination plastic infant carrier and rocker with a carrying handle. Kolcraft expanded into manufacturing and distributing other product categories, including play yards, high chairs, walkers, and strollers. In the 1990s, the company introduced new categories, including bassinets, bouncers, swings, and juvenile furniture. Available everywhere juvenile products are sold.  www.kolcraft.com

 

 

Shopping tips

Do your in-store research

Look for a sturdy frame, with no accessible sharp edges or hardware underneath or on top, comfortable soft fabric edging on the sides and leg area of the seat cushions, and well-designed, well-secured toys for little hands. The seat should swivel smoothly without any hitches, and there should be no gaps in the rim between the edge of the swivel mechanism and the tray. Such gaps could capture and hurt small fingers. If the activity center's bottom is a saucer, its flip-down braces, which prevent it from rocking, should be sturdy.

More isn't always better

Most activity centers offer activities that attract a baby's attention and promote her developing motor skills, including electronic toys, lights, sounds, songs, and a rotating seat.

One with fewer gadgets and toys won't feel as busy or overwhelming. Depending on the baby, that might be enough.

More features add to the price. However, more isn't always better. Although many babies enjoy a wide range of options, some find all that motion, sound, and light too stimulating. So go with an activity center with fewer bells and whistles--in other words, at the lower end of the price spectrum--if you suspect that your baby doesn't have a multitasking temperament.

Remember, you can always remove the batteries to reduce the activity center's sensory experience.

Safety strategies

A stationary activity center can keep your baby occupied and happy and give you a much-needed break. But you're not off the hook. Here's what you should do to help keep baby safe.

Keep an eye out. Even though a stationary activity center can give you a chance to grab a bite (without a baby in your lap), or check your e-mail, always keep your baby in view while he's in it.

Resist the urge to park your baby. Keeping your very young child in a stationary activity center for more than 30 minutes at a time can tax her naturally weak back and leg muscles.

Avoid walker mode. Some stationary activity centers convert to walk-behind walkers. Don't use it in walk-behind mode, because she can scoot away toward stairs, a hot stove, or other hazards.

Keep the activity center away from hot surfaces, dangling appliance cords, window-blind and curtain cords, stairs, sources of water such as a swimming pool, and anything else that might injure a child. Even though it is technically stationary, this play space can creep across the floor as your baby plays.

Watch for movement and make sure your baby stays away from hazards.

Don't carry an activity center with your child in it.

Place the product on level ground and make sure the legs are the same height. (The tray should be level.) That's the best way to avoid tip-overs.

Follow the manufacturer's age, weight, and height recommendations and keep the owner's manual for future reference. Don't use the activity center before your baby can sit up unassisted, and stop using it when your baby reaches the height or weight maximum and can walk or even stand up by himself, which means that he could easily tip it. And, as a general rule, if your child can tip over the activity center by just leaning over the edge, or can climb out of it, it's time to retire it.

Don't attach strings to the activity center or to its toys. They're a strangulation hazard.

Stop using a stationary activity center if it's damaged or broken.

   

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