Playing with your baby on the floor is a great way to bond, encourage development, and have fun! A baby play mat is an essential item to make tummy time and playtime comfortable and entertaining for your little one. This ultimate guide covers everything you need to know about selecting the right play mat for your baby.
What is a Baby Play Mat?
A baby play mat is a padded mat that provides a clean, cushioned surface for your baby to play and explore on. Playmats are designed to be placed on the floor and have toys, arches, and activities attached to stimulate your baby during tummy time and play. The padding provides cushioning for your baby to lay on their back or stomach comfortably.
Playmats are available in a variety of materials, colors, patterns, and feature options. Many parents use play mats from birth through toddlerhood as a designated area for playtime and learning. Playmats are designed with the baby’s safety and developmental needs in mind.
Play mats vary in size from small 36” x 36” mats to large play yards up to 144” wide. Smaller mats are great for infants who are not mobile yet, while larger mats allow room for crawling and exploring. The thickness of padding ranges from 1/2 inch for thinner, portable mats up to 2-3 inches for plush padded comfort.
Benefits of Using a Baby Play Mat
There are many benefits to using a baby play mat:
Encourages Physical Development
The soft padding of a play mat allows your baby to kick, reach, grasp, roll, crawl, and explore toys comfortably. This promotes gross motor skill development.
Play mats with arches and dangling toys help develop hand-eye coordination and reaching/grasping skills. Babies can reach for toys, bat at them, and bring them to their mouths for sensory exploration.
During tummy time, your baby can strengthen neck, back and core muscles by lifting and turning their head to see toys on the mat. Reaching for toys encourages them to bear weight on their arms and build strength to start pushing up into a crawling position.
Provides Mental Stimulation
Play mats often incorporate high-contrast patterns, noises, music, lights, mirrors and a variety of textures. All of these features provide mental stimulation and sensory development for your baby during play.
Your baby’s vision improves as they focus on toys with bright contrasting colors. Auditory stimulation occurs when your baby hears crinkly noises, music or sounds from squeeze toys.
Mirrors promote self-discovery and early social smiles. Touching materials of various textures also provides sensory input.
As your baby develops, play mat activities like shape sorters, light-up piano keys, and numbered tiles promote cognitive and fine motor growth. Educational toys teach cause and effect, organization, and problem-solving.
The cushioned surface of a play mat provides a safer play space than bare floors. This helps prevent injuries from falls or bumps during tummy time or active play.
Babies tend to get excited and can bump their heads on bare floors when learning to roll over or sit up. A padded mat cushions these early learning accidents.
The mat also prevents your baby from picking up dust or debris from the floor during play sessions. Keeping them on a clean surface helps reduce exposure to household dirt or germs.
Creates a Designated Play Space
Having a dedicated play mat spot allows you to keep toys contained and makes playtime easy. The mat contains messes and makes cleanup simple by defining the play zone area. Since babies tend to move and scatter toys, a mat helps limit stray pieces around the rest of the room.
You can create a visually engaging spot for your baby by choosing a colorful patterned mat and coordinating toys. Use hanging toys to create an interactive “play gym” space above your baby’s head. Having a consistent place for playtime also makes it easier to swap out toys to maintain your baby’s interest.
Many play mats are lightweight, foldable, or travel-friendly so you can take the fun on the go! Smaller thin mats easily fold up to stuff in a diaper bag for playtime anywhere.
Some come with Velcro closures for quick securing. Carrying cases with handles allows you to keep the mat and a few toys contained. This allows for playtime at the park, at Grandma’s house, or while traveling.
Inflatable mats are also portable for travel. They can fold down small and inflate when needed. Some parents even use floatable bath mats for water playtime during bathtime!
Play mats can be used for tummy time, playing with toys, reading books, bonding with your baby and more! You’ll get a lot of use out of a quality baby play mat.
Try laying on your back and having your baby lay on your chest while on the mat. This builds bonding while strengthening your baby’s neck muscles.
You can also use play mats for supervised sitting or crawling practice as your baby hits those milestones. Place toys just out of reach to encourage movement across the mat. As your baby grows into a toddler, play mats provide cushioned space for more active play.
What to Look for When Choosing a Play Mat
With so many options out there, here are the key features to consider when picking the best baby play mat for your needs:
Play mats come in vinyl, foam, fabric, quilted materials or a combination. Vinyl mats are easy to wipe clean but can be noisy. For a quieter choice, look for vinyl backed with cloth or fleece. Fabric mats provide cushioning but may be harder to clean. Muslin, cotton, flannel, and microfiber work for light messes. Foam or quilted materials offer softness and comfort.
If using outdoors, look for water-resistant materials that can be wiped down easily. Make sure any fabric mats have edging that prevents fraying or threading for safety. Also, check that vinyl materials don’t contain phthalates.
Think about your needs for washability, noise level, and comfort when deciding on material.
The size of your mat will depend on your available floor space and purpose. Smaller mats of 3-4 feet are great for tummy time and younger babies. Larger mats of 6 feet or more provide ample room for interactive toys and activities for older babies who can crawl and explore. There are also large play yards designed to enclose a whole play area up to 16 feet wide.
Measure your space beforehand so you can visualize mat placement. Think about allowing extra room on each side for your baby to roll or crawl off the mat as they develop. You’ll want some open floor space around the mat borders.
Some mats have padded bolsters around the edges. These help contain toys and prevent your baby from rolling off the mat’s surface. For more active babies, a border is useful. But borders do take up space on the mat and reduce the playable surface area.
Mats with removable bolsters allow you to add or remove the bumpers as needed. Some have two-sided borders that can fold under to change the size. Look for cushioned borders if you opt for an edged mat.
Toys & Activities
Many play mats have detachable/movable toy bars, arches, danglers, and other interactive elements to keep your baby engaged. These features encourage learning, and motor skills and provide stimulation. However, too many excessive toys can overstimulate some babies.
Look for toys that attach securely to the mat if needed. Elastic straps, Velcro, and misc fasteners allow you to reposition toys on arches or mat corners. Removable toy clips add versatility. When evaluating accessories, check for a variety of colors, patterns, noises, and textures to introduce new experiences.
Choose a mat with toy options that work for your baby’s stage. You can remove toys to adapt the mat as your baby develops new skills. Starting simple is fine, as you can always add more later.
If you’ll use a play mat on the go, at a caregiver’s, or for travel, look for one that is lightweight, folds up, or comes with a carrying case or handle. Not all mats are portable, so check if that feature is important to you.
Foldable vinyl mats are a good portable pick. They roll or fold up neatly and many have straps or hooks for easy transport. If choosing an inflatable mat, make sure the inflation method is easy and quick. Carrying cases should be durable and securely contain the mat and accessories.
Play mat prices range from $20 to $200+ depending on size, materials, and included features. Determine your must-have features and set a budget. Make sure the quality and workmanship justify the price point.
You can find basic mats for under $40 and deluxe mat/gym combinations for over $150. Evaluate what you’re getting for the price. Some less expensive mats lack cushioning but have great portability. Higher-end mats usually include more accessories, toys, and thicker padding.
Top Play Mats by Category
Here are our top picks for best baby play mats by category:
Best Basic Mat: Baby Care Play Mat by Ikea
This no-frills reversible mat has a lightweight foam core, removable vinyl cover and great price points under $20. Easy to fold, clean and transport for basic floor play needs.
Best Splurge-Worthy Mat: Twinkle Twinkle Play Gym by Skip Hop
With an arch, dangling toys, music, lights, and textures, this mat keeps babies engaged through all stages. Luxurious dotted fabric cushions little bodies in style. Worth the $80 price for quality and features.
Best Tummy Time Mat: Infantino Grow & Go
This oversized pillow-style mat is perfectly cushy for tummy time. A plastic mirror stimulates visually while crinkly toys on an arch develop motor skills. Bonus – It converts to a toddler seat as the baby grows!
Best Portable Mat: Bumbo Multi Seat with Playmat
The Bumbo mat folds flat and compact to stash in your diaper bag. It features an attached seat to help the baby sit up securely during play. The bright colors and toys engage visually. Carry and use this versatile mat anywhere.
Best Interactive Mat: Piano Playmat by Tiny Love
This fabric mat has an actual baby-safe piano that plays music and three shape sorter boxes for learning. At $60, it keeps older babies busy while building fine motor and cognitive skills.
Best Natural Mat: Manhattan Toy Wimba
Made of 100% cotton, this quilted reversible mat offers a non-toxic natural surface for play. Gentle contrast patterns visually stimulate the baby. A great eco-friendly choice for $38.
Best Water Mat: Splashin’kids Inflatable Tub Floor Mat
This inflatable vinyl mat creates a soft, cushioned surface in the tub. The drain holes allow water to flow through while preventing the baby from slipping. Suction cups secure it in place for water playtime.
Best Eco-Friendly Mat: Charlie & River Organic Play Mat
The eco-friendly mat is made from renewable organic Oeko-Tex-certified cotton and dyes. It’s free of harmful chemicals with gentle padded fibers for baby’s skin. A sustainable choice!
Most Portable: Alzipmat Foldable Play Mat
The Alzipmat packs down into an attached compact pouch. Weighing only 1 lb., it’s easy to toss in your bag for on-the-go use. The polyester fabric wipes clean easily and provides safety for the baby.
Best Convertible Mat: Mibosuo 4-in-1 Play Yard Mat
This large play yard mat converts from a bassinet to a play mat to a ball pit as the baby grows. The mesh sides zip on to enclose a safe play area. Well worth the $100 price for 4 mats in 1!
Setting Up the Play Mat
Once you’ve selected the perfect play mat for your needs, here are some tips for introducing it and setting it up for success:
- Place the mat in an area without hazards and where you can easily supervise the baby. Avoid setting it by furniture edges, TV stands, or shelves that could topple over. Keep away from cords, blinds, or heavy window treatments that pose risks. Kitchens and garages with chemicals or tools are unsafe areas for the mat.
- Allow plenty of open floor space around the mat for rolling, crawling, and playing. Make sure there is ample room for your baby to move off the mat without bumping into objects or walls.
- Use the mat in a low-traffic area without risky big kids or pet toys nearby. Prevent tripping injuries by keeping walkways and doorways clear.
- Set up play gyms, arches or dangling toys across the center of the mat to encourage reaching and grasping. Position toys about 6-10 inches above the baby’s chest so they can bat at them.
- Rotate toys on a weekly basis to introduce variety and new challenges. Varying colors, shapes, textures, sounds, etc. promotes learning. Store extra toys out of sight to make them “new” again later.
- Prop up the baby with blankets or pillows as needed during tummy time. Offer toys just beyond reach to motivate movement. Place mirrors or high-contrast cards near their face to capture attention.
- Get down on the mat with your baby and interact. Narrate your baby’s actions, sing songs, read books and play together. Moving toys across their field of vision helps strengthen visual tracking skills.
- When not in use, keep the mat clean by picking up dropped toys and wiping them down with an appropriate cleaner. Vacuum crumbs and laundry fabric mats regularly.
Play Mat Safety Tips
While play mats provide a safer play zone than the floor, there are still some precautions parents should take:
- Never leave the baby unattended on the mat. Active supervision is essential, even if the baby is not mobile yet. Keep your eyes on the baby anytime they are on the mat.
- Do not use any mat if it has loose parts, tears or exposed foam or stuffing. Replace immediately if any part of the mat is damaged or detached.
- Position baby on their back for sleep after playtime is over – do not let baby nap on their stomach. Babies should only sleep on their backs according to safe sleep guidelines.
- Secure toys with wrist straps when possible to prevent choking hazards. Check that all toys, arches, etc. are firmly attached and contain no small removable parts. Avoid dangling strings that could strangle.
- Discontinue use if a baby can push up on hands and knees or crawl over the edge of the mat. Once mobile, babies need enough room to explore safely.
- Remove necklaces, loose fabrics or cords from your clothing that could pose a strangulation risk. Always tie back long hair and drape scarves/jewelry out of baby’s reach.
- Do not attach strings, ribbons or elastic to toys or mats. These pose serious strangulation hazards for babies who grasp everything. Use clips or velcro instead.
Following these guidelines will help ensure your baby’s play mat provides a secure place for playtime discoveries and milestones! With so many options to choose from, you can find the perfect mat to entertain your little one.