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:
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).
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.
Play Yards, Swings, & Activity Centers
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
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
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).
Kitty O'Callaghan, a mom of two, is the former products editor of BabyTalk magazine.