Not so long ago the playpen was a very common and ordinary part of a young child’s life. Ask your own parents or grandparents and there’s a good chance they not only used one, but did so without spending much time pondering over its evils or benefits. The playpen was as ubiquitous as the pram or the highchair.
But today it is far less common to see a playpen. Those who do use them often joke uncomfortably about “locking” their baby away, to buffer against the criticism of others. Forums are littered with parents questioning their pros and cons and asking for advice about whether a playpen will help or harm their baby and their family. Many feel the playpen has become a sort of anti-status symbol, where parents who use one believe they are looked down upon by those who do not.
Why the playpen has fallen from favour.
There are various websites and forum comments that allude to studies that show babies placed in playpens experience developmental delay and suffer long term mental and physical harm. But no one seems to be able to point to any such studies and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at University of California-Berkeley and author of The Philosophical Baby, says she ” [doesn’t] know of any systematic research on this.” What seems most likely is that advice about the importance of allowing a baby to move and explore their environment has been applied by concerned parents to playpens, though not intended to specifically warn against their use in their entirety.
Certainly, confining your child to a playpen for extended periods of time would inhibit their ability to explore and experiment. Being always kept away from areas and things they shouldn’t touch does nothing to teach them about boundaries or responding to directives, and being always able to safely play with everything in reach could encourage a recklessness that won’t translate well to the ‘real world’. Children free to explore a properly childproofed house can open up opportunities for learning that might not be available to them within the playpen.
How a playpen can work for you and your family.
But all these concerns about limiting your child’s ability to explore and have freedom to move and play are being presented in extremes – where children are either left in small playpens all day or never have their movement curtailed at all. One forum user claims using a playpen will cause “neurological disorganisation” and draws a link between parents who use playpens and those who “chained children to bedposts or locked them in closets” causing them to become “idiots [who] only grew to half their normal size.” This kind of ridiculous comparison leads parents to the other extreme where, to avoid being child abusing monsters, won’t place their children in large secure areas with toys for short periods of time.
We don’t seem to worry about the damage we might be doing to our children when we confine them to a pram or a car seat or a highchair or a fenced playground. I see no reason why a medium to large playpen cannot be part of a range of gear used to keep our children safe and facilitate every day life, when used in moderation. It would be wrong to keep a child in a playpen all day. It would be wrong to keep a child in a pram all day. But knowing you have a safe place to leave your child when you need to have a shower, or go out to the clothes-line, or answer the front door, or any time you cannot directly supervise them, is a real lifesaver. If you’ve let them spend time in the playpen from a young age you child will most likely enjoy this space (provided you make it fun, and don’t use it as a punishment place) and happily play while you are busy.
If your baby is in the playpen for short periods of time, and other times free to explore more freely, you are damaging them no more than if you sometimes restrict your baby’s movement when walking to the shops, or driving to a park. You can get the bulk of your chores done in a concentrated hit and then are better able to give your child all your focus later, rather than splitting your attention all day. By spending time on independent play you child is learning valuable emotional and physical skills, feeling confident in your absence and experimenting autonomously.
Like so many things in life, moderation is the key. A playpen should not be a place to dump your baby while you lounge around drinking wine and sneering at parents who say babies are hard work. But if you use your playpen for short periods of time, to allow your baby to play in a secure and safe environment when you cannot be as hands on as you need to be, you won’t regret adding one to your home.
Join the discussion below, what do you think about playpens?