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Baby Hangouts

Whoever first said, "I only have two hands!" must have been a parent. Throughout the day, you need to put your baby down -- and odds are your little one would love a change of scenery too.

Enter the world of jumpers, bouncy seats, rockers, play yards, swings, and activity centers. They're all made to let a baby safely watch the world go by, but they're not mutually exclusive buys. Depending on your budget, living space, and child's age and temperament, you may prefer just one, or you may want one of each. Here, how to know which will work best for your family:

Jumpers

Age/weight limit: 4 months to 25 pounds or until your baby can walk

Price range: $20 to $40

What they are: Cloth seats attached to springs that hook onto a door frame, allowing a baby to leap up and down

What they're not: A no-brainer to set up. It's not rocket science, but it is important to secure the seat correctly.

Who'll love one: Active lap jumpers

Who won't: Some babies who are already beginning to cruise (they won't like feeling trapped) and parents who don't have a low-traffic doorway in which to hang one. Jumpers aren't recommended for certain special-needs children (check with your pediatrician before using one).

Buying guide

  • Read the specs on the packaging to make sure that the product will fit your door frame.

    Safety tips

  • Follow set-up instructions carefully and use only the manufacturer's included hardware.

  • Choose a wide doorway (so your baby won't bump into it) with a three- to six-inch-thick wall and a half-inch-wide molding.

  • Inspect safety straps often to make sure they're not frayed.

  • Never leave your baby unattended in the jumper.

    Good Bets

  • Jolly Jumper, $30, from Jolly Jumper, 905-565-9750

  • Bumper Jumper, $35, from Graco, 800-345-4109

  • Johnny Jump-Up, $20, from Evenflo, 800-233-5921

    Bouncy Seats and Rockers

    Age/weight limit: Newborn to 20 pounds or until your baby can sit up unassisted

    Price range: $20 to $85

    What they are: Padded fabric stretched over a curved plastic or wire frame that bounces and/or rocks when a baby moves. Deluxe models feature such add-ons as a sun canopy, toys, and an adjustable seat, as well as a battery-powered control panel that plays music or soothing sounds (think ocean waves) and vibrates or rocks the chair. Some are sound-activated so they automatically turn on the works when your baby cries.

    What they're not: Eye level. For safety reasons, these pint-size chairs should stay on the floor, which is less convenient for you and less interesting for your infant (though a vibrating seat and built-in play bar can make up for the diminished view).

    Who'll love one: Fussy and calm babies. Not to mention fussy and calm parents. They're a good fit for just about everyone, since they're portable, compact, and not too expensive.

    Who won't: Babies who prefer a bigger rocking motion to stimulate their senses. In that case, opt for a swing.

    Buying guide

  • Spring for one that vibrates. It doesn't cost much more, and you'll love that soothing "magic fingers" option. How many other extras you'll want depends on your baby's appetite for excitement and your tolerance for lullabies and lights.

  • Choose one with a sun canopy if you think you'll use the seat outside.

  • If you'll regularly need to transport it to Grandma's or the sitter's, look for a model that folds flat.

  • Consider a removable neck support if your infant's less than 3 months old (though small, rolled-up towels work just as well).

  • Check that toys hang within your baby's reach; they should swing away or pop off so you can easily get him in and out of the chair.

  • Look for a removable, machine-washable seat for easier cleaning.

  • Before making a choice, listen to the music -- and how loudly it plays -- to be sure it won't drive you nuts.

    Safety tips

  • For stability, make sure the base is wider than the seat.

  • Always fasten the safety harness.

    Good Bets

  • Mother's Touch Bouncer Seat, $30, from Summer Infant, 800-268-6237

  • Kick & Play Bouncer, $40, from Fisher-Price, 800-432-5437

  • Baby Sitter 1-2-3, $79, from Baby Bj¿¿srn, 800-593-5522

  • Deluxe Musical Sofa Rocker, $80, from Chicco, 877-424-4226

    Play Yards, Swings, & Activity Centers

    Play Yards

    Age/weight limit: Newborn to 30 pounds or 34 inches tall (the bassinet and the changing-table inserts are for babies who can't yet push up on their knees)

    Price range: $60 to $180

    What they are: Enclosed, collapsible play spaces with mesh sides and a thin pad on the bottom. Pricier models come with a removable bassinet and/or changing table that straddles the top rails, an electronic panel that vibrates and/or plays music, storage pockets, a sun canopy, and a zippered tent to keep bugs away outdoors.

    What they're not: Lightweight or small. You can haul one in the car for an overnight visit, but forget about lugging one on a plane  -- it can weigh as much as 30 pounds and might be damaged if checked as luggage. Most are the size of a three-drawer dresser.

    Who'll love one: Families who take frequent car trips (a play yard comes in handy as a portable crib) and anyone with an infant and a two-story house (the downstairs bassinet and diaper-changing station will save countless trips up to the baby's room). Even if you don't fit the first two criteria, you may simply like the idea of an enclosed, protected area for your prewalker, especially if she's often besieged by older siblings or pets.

    Who won't: Parents who cringe at the idea of "caging" their child, those whose baby is already cruising or walking (she probably won't tolerate such high-security confinement), and those who live in a small house or apartment

    Buying guide

  • It's all about the folding mechanism -- some are much easier to operate than others -- so ask to try several in the store.

  • If you plan to travel with a play yard, or even move it from room to room in your house, you'll want one with wheels.

  • Skip the canopy and bug tent if you don't have a backyard or plan to use it outside.

  • Opt for mesh on at least three sides so you can see what your little one's up to and she can see out.

    Safety tips

  • If you receive or buy a secondhand model, check with the Consumer Products Safety Commission at 800-638-2772 or www.cpsc.gov to make sure it hasn't been recalled. More than 10 million play yards made before 1998 have been taken off the market because of faulty rails and protruding rivets.

  • Like a crib, a play yard filled with soft bedding increases the risk of suffocation and SIDS. Don't add pillows, blankets, or any other additional padding.

  • Never let your child wear a necklace or any stringed objects around her neck while in the play yard -- it could get caught on an end post and strangle her. For the same reason, don't string toys across the top of the play yard.

  • Allow only one child in the play yard at a time; avoid moving it while your baby's inside.

  • Don't place it next to window blinds with dangling cords, the stove, or a radiator.

  • Never leave her unattended.

    Good Bets

  • 5-Way Pack 'n Play, $140, from Graco, 800-345-4109

  • Close-to-Me Care Center Deluxe, $100, from Fisher-Price, 800-432-5437

  • Travelin' Tot 4-in-1, $109, from Kolcraft, 800-453-7673

    Swings

    Age/weight limit: Newborn to 8 months or 25 pounds

    Price range: $40 to $130 What they are: Padded seats that swing back and forth, thanks to a wind-up or a battery-powered mechanism, from a four-legged or a U-shaped base. Deluxe features include multiple speed settings, a reclining seat for newborns, music, vibration, and a swing-away snack and/or play tray with removable toys. Some are sound-activated; others come with a remote control.

    What they're not: Interactive or, except for a portable model, petite. Most swings take up a considerable chunk of space, whether in the living room or the storage closet. And while many come with attachable toys, the back-and-forth motion makes it difficult for babies to actually play with them.

    Who'll love one: Most infants (and their parents) when they feel fussy or overtired. Some colicky babies find much-needed relief in the steady, rocking action.

    Who won't: Parents with limited floor space and most babies over 4 months old, who won't like being restrained in the seat if they're not already used to it

    Buying guide

  • Purchase a battery-powered model. It adds about $20 to the price, plus the cost of replacement batteries, but it's worth that and more to avoid rewinding the swing every 15 minutes or so -- just as your baby's drifting off to sleep.

  • If your infant's less than 3 months old, you'll most likely want a reclining seat and removable head support.

  • For easier loading and unloading, choose an open-top model (one that doesn't have a crossbar above the seat); if there's a tray or a mobile, be sure it moves easily out of the way.

  • Try the portable variety if you'd like to move it from room to room or take it with you when you visit friends and family. It has fewer frills and sits lower to the floor (which can be hard on your back), but it has almost the same swinging power as larger versions.

  • If you'll frequently need to move a full-size model out of the way or want to store it for a second child, find out how small it collapses.

  • Choose a removable, machine-washable seat.

  • Be sure the controls are in an easy-to-reach spot (not, for instance, on the moving seat).

    Safety tips

  • Always buckle the safety belt.

  • Don't use the fastest speeds until your baby's about 5 months old.

  • Try not to use a swing for more than roughly 30 minutes at a stretch. Infants also need to spend time on their back and tummy in order to work all of their muscles.

  • Never leave him unattended.

    Good Bets

  • Open Top Take-Along Swing, $40, from Fisher-Price, 800-432-5437

  • Perfect Height Swing, $89, from Kolcraft, 800-453-7673

  • Smart Swing Plus, $110, from Regalo, 763-559-1940

  • 6-Speed Open Top Swing, $119, from Graco, 800-345-4109

    Activity Centers

    Age/weight limit: Babies who can sit up to 30 pounds or 32 inches tall

    Price range: $40 to $80

    What they are: Large, plastic play stations with attached toys and a rotating fabric seat suspended in the middle

    What they're not: Quiet or compact. Going with the "more is more" theory, most come with a plethora of toys, almost all of which play tunes or make other sounds. They measure roughly two feet across and aren't small even when collapsed.

    Who'll love one: Parents with sufficient space, most young babies, and even toddlers, who'll like to walk around the perimeter and play with the toys

    Who won't: Parents who are turned off by lots of flashing lights and noise and those who live in a small house or an apartment. Activity centers aren't recommended for some premature and special-needs babies (check with your pediatrician).

    Buying guide

  • Listen to the sound effects in the store to be sure they're tolerable.

  • If you'd like more bang for your buck, opt for a model that converts into a toddler toy (some have removable playthings; others morph into an entirely new toy).

    Safety tips

  • Stay away from those on wheels. Walkers are responsible for more than 8,000 emergency-room visits each year.

  • Inspect toys regularly for loose or cracked parts that could break off and choke your child.

  • Don't leave her in an activity center for long periods at a time. Contrary to popular opinion, it won't develop a baby's muscles and can, in fact, delay such skills as crawling and walking.

  • Never leave her unattended.

    Good Bets

  • Ultrasaucer, $80, from Evenflo, 800-233-5921

  • Little Tikes Convertible Entertainer, $80, from Graco, 800-345-4109

    Kitty O'Callaghan, a mom of two, is the former products editor of BabyTalk magazine.

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