How To Clean a Pack and Play Safely (Plus: Don’t Make this Dangerous Mistake)

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Babies and toddlers, cute as they are, are also pretty gross. Spit up, vomit, leaky diapers, boogies…and that’s not to mention all the spills and dropped (or thrown) food.

Over the years, we’ve had our share of epic clean ups as a family. When they happen, it’s easiest when we simply have to mop up the floor or the wall, or peel off a bed sheet and wipe down the waterproof layer on our daughter’s mattress.

But when the epic messes happen to affect harder-to-clean baby gear? Well, that’s a whole other ball game.

Cleaning baby gear like car seats, strollers, and – yes – pack and plays, requires special care to ensure you get the job done, without affecting the safety of the product.

Below, I go over how to properly clean a pack and play. In addition to tips on how to clean a pack and play, I also share how not to do it, and common mistakes you might make that could ruin the whole thing (and render it unsafe for use).

If you find yourself with a dirty pack and play in need of a good cleaning, you’re in the right place.

Long pinnable image with text that says "How to Clean a Pack and Play Without Ruining It" and there is a photo of a bowl of soapy water and a rag in front of a pack and play

DISCLAIMER – This content is being provided for information purposes only and should not be seen as a recommendation. I am not a medical professional, and none of the content in this blog post or on this website is meant to substitute professional health, safety and medical advice. I’ve rounded up the best research and evidence I could find, but at the end of the day you should consult your pediatrician or family doctor when it comes to questions or concerns about your babies’ sleep environment and safety. Also note, you need to read the user manual for your specific pack and play, as different models have different rules for use, and ensure it is used as intended by the manufacturer.

(Final note: I use pack and play, play pen / playpen, and play yard / playard interchangeably in this article. I also refer to a Pack ‘n Play® which is a brand-specific term that refers to Graco brand play yards: a Pack ‘n Play®. I’ve tried to use the term Pack ‘n Play® when referring to Graco products only, and one of the other terms when referring to other brands).

Why Cleaning Your Pack and Play is Important

Just as you clean your babies toys, bath stuff, bedding, and other gear regularly, it’s important to add your child’s pack and play to your regular cleaning routine.

Routine cleaning helps control the spread of illness in your house, and soap and water goes a long way in nixing viruses and bacteria that may be on surfaces throughout your home. (source)

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, bedding such as sheets and pillow cases should be cleaned once per week, and before another child uses it. What goes for cribs goes for pack and plays!

It’s not necessary to disinfect or sanitize in addition to soap, water, and a bit of elbow grease.

Beyond routine cleaning to clean up the dirt your kiddo brings in, there’s also situational cleaning. You should clean your pack and play after your baby has been sick, or when you notice the pack and play is particularly dirty due to food, wet accidents (urine, vomit, diaper fails), or something similar.

Additionally, you’ll want to give your pack and play a deep cleaning after it’s been in storage for a long time. I recently pulled out my 4moms Breeze pack and play after it had been in storage for a long time, and found a spider had made itself comfortable at some point, along with some weird marks along the top railing that I can’t explain.

I spot cleaned the frame using just warm water and a damp cloth, and it looked great when I was finished with it.

A woman's hand and a cloth spot cleaning a pack and play
Cleaning my 4moms Breeze pack and play

Finally, whichever cleaning method you choose, cleaning your pack n play is a good time to inspect your pack and play for damage, rips, etc. and make sure it’s in good condition and safe to use for your child.

Pack and Play Cleaning Instructions to Avoid (Don’t Make These Mistakes)

Unfortunately, a lot of the pack and play cleaning instructions I found on the internet aren’t just wrong: they’re dangerous.

That’s right: incorrectly cleaning a pack and play could lead to a warped frame, misshapen (and therefore, dangerous) mattress, stretched out bottom panel or sidewalls (which may reduce structural integrity) or dangerous mold growth.

The only safe way to clean a pack and play is through spot cleaning – that’s the only method you’ll likely find in your instruction manual!

In particular, submerging any part of your pack and play in water to deep clean it (either the mattress, the frame, or both) is a bad idea, as is using excess water that soaks it.

pack and play folded up and sitting in a bath tub with a red X over the image to show its dangerous to deep clean a pack and play in the bath

What are the dangers of cleaning a pack and play the wrong way?

  • Mold growth in the pack and play mattress. You should never submerge a pack and play mat in water, as it likely won’t dry out before mold gets a chance to grow within it. It also may have cardboard pieces within it, which likely won’t dry out properly after being submerged.
  • A misshapen or warped pack and play mat. Pack and play manufacturers make specific mattresses for specific play yard models to ensure they fit safely within the playard base and are firm enough for babies. This is one of several reasons you should never try to make a pack and play more comfortable by adding a different mattress. Any gaps between the side of the mattress and the inner wall of the pack and play are dangerous for babies, especially infants and babies under 1 year old. A warped, misshapen mattress that no longer fits properly or attaches to the frame properly? It’s a safety issue.
  • Stretched out side panels or bottom panels. If you submerge a pack and play in water, the side walls or bottom panel may stretch out. This may affect the structural integrity of the pack and play, as well as creating gaps between the mattress and play yard walls that could be dangerous.
  • Corrosion. Some advice I’ve seen includes submerging a pack and play in a solution of water, vinegar, and baking soda. If not thoroughly rinsed, this may cause aluminum parts on the pack and play (such as legs and joints) to corrode, since vinegar can damage aluminium (and many pack and plays have aluminium parts).

As a mom myself – and someone who has personally tested a lot of different pack and plays – I am very familiar with how gross they can get.

It gives me no pleasure to warn you about how cleaning your pack n play could actually affect it’s safety. But it’s still true, and worth being aware of.

In particular, fully submerging your pack and play mattress or your actual pack and play in water to deep clean it is a bad idea, and I’d suggest you avoid it.

Materials You’ll Need to Clean a Pack n Play

There’s nothing specialized required to clean a pack and play – just the normal cleaning supplies you likely have in your home already.

Gentle Detergent

For anything that can be machine washed, you’ll want to use a gentle, fragrance free detergent (ideally one that is eco friendlier, too).

We use True Earth detergent strips for all of our machine washable laundry, and I’ve tested them out for deep cleaning both the BabyBjorn Travel Crib Light, the Guava Family Lotus Everywhere pack and play and the Bugaboo Stardust (which all have machine washable fabric, as do many ultralight travel cribs and portable cots). They worked great when washing the play yard fabric!

Tru Earth detergent strips in a woman's hand, held over a pack and play as part of an article about how to clean a pack and play

The True Earth strips also dissolve quite well in a bucket with warm water. If you plan to spot clean or scrub your pack and play using True Earth Strips as your detergent, you can rip one up and add them to a bowl with a bit of hot water. They’re start to dissolve fairly quickly, and then you can stir them with your finger before filling it up with more warm-to-hot water (be sure it’s not so hot it will burn you).

Katie from GreenActiveFamily.com uses her finger (visible) to dissolve True Earth detergent strips in a bowl of warm water, before using it to spot clean a pack and play
Using my finger to dissolve our True Earth detergent strips in a bowl of warm water. I used this solution to spot clean our 4moms Breeze Pack and Play.

A Bowl or Spray Bottle of Warm Water or Warm Soapy Water

Most play yards don’t have removable fabric panels (typically, only travel cribs have this). If you can’t remove the play yard fabric and throw it in the washing machine, spot cleaning the pack and play is the safest option.

Start with a wash cloth and warm water. If warm water and elbow grease don’t do the job, you can try warm soapy water, using a gentle detergent for the soap.

Pack and play manufacturers recommend against any sort of harsh detergents, disinfectants or chemicals for cleaning. They may damage the fabric. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, and advises against harsh chemical cleaners, such as bleach and other toxic cleaners.

Instead, try baby safe detergent mixed with warm water.

A bowl of water and detergent with a rag in front of a pack and play for an instructional article about how to clean a play yard or pack n play

A Vacuum with an Upholstery Attachment (Optional – Use at Your Own Risk)

No matter how hard I try, we always tend to end up with crumbs of some sort in the play yard base.

In my experience, using a vacuum wand alone tends to be too strong for the pack and play fabric, so I only ever vacuum the inside if I use an upholstery attachment, with the vacuum on the lowest power setting, and placed on an angle so it doesn’t get full suction power.

2 image collage showing how to clean a pack n play base or floor with your vacuum. On the left is a vacuum wand with no attachment suctioning up the play yard floor. There's a red X to show this is wrong. On the right is a vacuum wand with upholstery attachment and a green check to show this is right.

I also never position the vacuum attachment fully against the pack and play fabric – I leave it angled upwards, so it doesn’t achieve full suction on the fabric. This seems to work for me – vacuuming up crumbs without pulling at the fabric.

Vacuum wand with upholstery attachment vacuuming the floor of a pack and play to clean it. The wand isn't facing straight down, but is on an angle so as to reduce the suction power and not damage the pack and play fabric

This process works for me, but I can’t say I recommend it to others, as it largely depends on your pack and play model and your vacuum whether you’ll be able to do this without damaging the play yard base.

From the research I’ve done, I haven’t seen any mention of vacuuming the play yard base from manufactures in an owner’s manual or online, so it’s unclear whether they recommend it or not. This is a “use with caution at your own risk” tip!

A Bucket, Drop Clothes, and a Soft Scrub Brush (Scrubbing)

If your pack and play needs more than a spot clean, you might be best served by laying out some towels or drop clothes to protect your floors as you work.

For a more in-depth clean, you’ll want a bucket to fill with warm water mixed with household soap (such as gentle detergent or baby safe liquid dish soap), as well as a soft scrub brush to work on stubborn stains.

Still, I don’t recommend hosing down your entire pack and play after a good scrub. Only scrub the parts that are dirty, and then use a clean rag to wipe off the cleaning solution. The goal is to get it clean without using harsh chemicals or excess water, which could damage your pack and play or render it unsafe.

How to Spot Clean Your Pack and Play (Recommended Method)

Your best bet for cleaning your pack and play is to spot clean it regularly, so it never gets too out of control or filthy.

(Before using any sort of soap or detergent on a fabric you haven’t used it with before, it’s worth doing a spot test in an inconspicuous place to ensure it doesn’t damage or discolor the fabric in any way).

  1. Assemble your pack and play. Remove the mattress, sheets, mattress cover, and anything else that happens to be inside it. This is a good time to machine wash the mattress cover (if it’s removable) and sheets, according to the instructions for the brand you have.
  2. (Optional – try at your own risk) Using a low power handheld vacuum or a regular vacuum wand with an upholstery attachment, vacuum the bottom to get rid of any crumbs, etc. that have accumulated in the base. Place the vacuum wand on an angle so it doesn’t get full suction on the fabric, but is enough to suck up crumbs.
  3. Using warm water and a damp wash cloth, wipe down the play yard sides and rails, taking care with any stubborn spots to clean them. Don’t use a soaking wet cloth, as you don’t want to get the pack and play truly wet. You can wipe down the pack and play mattress too, taking care not to get it too wet.
  4. If the warm water spot clean doesn’t get it clean enough, make a cleaning solution of warm water mixed with gentle soap (baby safe detergent or dish soap that you’ve previously spot tested on the fabric).
  5. Set the pack and play mattress and the pack and play frame somewhere with good airflow and leave it to air dry. A sunny day makes this easier for it to air dry completely, and I suggest waiting at least an hour for it to dry (likely: longer).
  6. Ensure the pack and play is completely dry before you fold it up and put it away or back in its carrying bag. This will prevent mold and mildew from growing, which can happen if it’s still damp or wet when you put it away.
  7. This is a good time to check that the pack and play is still in good working order, and that your child isn’t bumping up against the weight limit or other milestones to suggest they are about to outgrow their pack and play (such as trying to climb out of it!).
A woman's hand holds a rag and spot cleans a pack and play. There is a bowl with soapy water in the background.
Spot cleaning a pack and play

How to Scrub Your Pack and Play

If your pack and play needs a level of cleaning that goes beyond spot cleaning, you might need to put a bit more elbow grease in and give it a good scrub.

When scrubbing a pack and play, you don’t want to completely soak the fabric, nor do you want to stretch it out as you work, so take care on both points. When working, you can support one side of the fabric or mesh with your other hand, especially when you’re scrubbing on that section.

  1. Assemble your pack and play. Remove the mattress, sheets, mattress cover, and anything else that happens to be inside it. This is a good time to machine wash the mattress cover (if there is one) and sheets, according to the instructions for the brand you have.
  2. (Optional – try at your own risk) Using a low power handheld vacuum or a regular vacuum wand with an upholstery attachment, vacuum the bottom to get rid of any crumbs, etc. that have accumulated in the base. Place the vacuum wand on an angle so it doesn’t get full suction on the fabric, but is enough to suck up crumbs.
  3. Place some drop clothes or towels on your floor if working inside or in a garage. Better yet if the weather allows, take the pack and play outside and set it up on your driveway or something similar.
  4. Fill a bucket with warm water and a gentle, baby safe detergent. If you’ve never used this detergent on your pack and play, spot clean it in an inconspicuous place to make sure it doesn’t damage or discolor the fabric before using it in other spots!
  5. Using a soft scrub brush, scrub the pack and play where it’s dirty only, taking care not to stretch out the fabric or get it too wet. Don’t scrub the pack and play mattress – it should only ever be spot cleaned.
  6. Use a damp cloth with clean water to wipe the scrubbed areas free from the soapy water. Don’t hose off your pack and play or get it soaking wet, as this could damage it or render it unsafe.
  7. Set the pack and play mattress and the pack and play frame somewhere with good airflow and leave it to air dry. A sunny day makes this easier, and you may need a couple of hours or more for it to fully dry.
  8. Ensure the pack and play is completely dry before you fold it up and put it away. This will prevent mold and mildew from growing, which can happen if it’s still damp or wet when you put it away.

How to Deep Clean Your Pack and Play (Not Recommended)

There’s no safe way to deep clean a pack and play, and manufacturers only recommend spot cleaning.

I’ve seen a number of videos and tips about how to clean a pack and play that recommend submerging a pack and play in a bathtub full of water, and scrubbing it that way.

This technique is not recommended by me, or by pack and play manufacturers

Aesthetically, this method actually works pretty well based on the videos I’ve seen. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it. Once you’ve submerged a pack and play in water, there’s no way to know if it’s safe to use.

This method is against manufacturer’s instructions, and is pretty much a last resort. I don’t recommend this method at all, but I especially don’t recommend it if you’re going to use the pack and play with babies under 12 months old, because it’s possible it will stretch the side panels out and make the mattress fit improperly within the frame.

Also note, you shouldn’t completely submerge the pack and play mattress, as it’s really tricky to get them to completely dry, and if it doesn’t, it may develop mold spores, mildew, etc.

It may also make the mattress pad warp, so it no longer fits in the frame properly or safely.

The TLDR of this: I recommend against any cleaning instructions that have your pack and play completely submerged in water.

How to Clean a Pack and Play Mattress

The only safe way to clean a pack and play mattress is by spot cleaning. While it’s not perfect, it’s the only method I’ve seen recommended in an owner’s manual. This is also true if you have a pack and play bassinet for newborns attachment – only spot clean the mattress!

Start with your dirty pack and play mattress. Mine has spit up as well as a few – ummm – brown marks.

Dirty pack and play mat in need of a spot cleaning. Shown as a how to article about how to clean a pack and play mat

Fill a bowl with warm water and a gentle soap (baby safe laundry detergent or dish soap is my go to). With a clean, damp rag, spot clean the stains and marks.

A bowl of soapy water and a rag on a dirty pack and play mattress in need of cleaning

After spot cleaning with soap and water, then use a damp cloth with just clean water on it to wipe the soap solution away. Again, avoid soaking the mattress with too much water.

Blot the spot cleaned areas dry with a clean dry rag or paper towel and let the whole thing air dry for a few hours, until it’s completely dry. Putting it out in full sun is a great way to dry it and add a bit more disinfecting power, if it’s a nice day.

When to Replace a Pack and Play Mattress?

If spot cleaning doesn’t work to get the pack and play mattress clean, you can try spot cleaning one more time. If that doesn’t get it clean, it might be time to replace the mattress.

Only replace your pack and play mattress with one from the pack and play manufacturer that’s meant for your specific model. Don’t buy one made by a third party, as it may not fit properly, which is unsafe.

Tips for Keeping a Pack and Play Clean

Use a Mattress Cover to Prevent Stains Before They Happen

A thin waterproof mattress cover that you can pull off and machine wash will prevent a lot of cleaning issues later on when it comes to your pack and play pad.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, thin waterproof mattress covers fit within safe sleep guidelines:

If a mattress cover is used to protect against wetness, it should be tightly fitting and thin.

Alternatively, get a pack and play that has a waterproof mattress as is. Our Phil & Ted’s traveller pack and play mat was waterproof and wipe down, which was great!

Clean Up Spills and Stains as They Happen

Don’t let spills and stains dry on your pack and play – spot clean them as they happen with a damp rag.

Clean Out Crumbs Daily

If you find your little one gets crumbs or sand in the pack and play, clean it out regularly and don’t let it accumulate.

Only Use Non-Messy Toys in the Pack and Play

Pack and plays aren’t the place to use playdough or slime – only offer your little on non-messy toys when in their pack and play, such as a Lovevery box or wooden blocks.

How to Clean Your Travel Crib

Travel cribs tend to be easier to clean than traditional pack and plays. This is because for many of them you can remove the fabric from the frame and machine wash it.

Babybjorn pack and play fabric in a mesh laundry bag before washing
Fabric sides for my BabyBjorn travel crib in a mesh laundry bag before machine washing.

After machine washing, you need to let the fabric dry fully before putting it back together. If needed, you can wipe down the frame with a damp cloth.

FAQs

How Often Should You Clean a Pack and Play?

Clean pack and play stains and spills as they happen. If used regularly, you should probably clean your pack and play along the same frequency as your baby’s other bedding: about once per week for sheets, etc. While the pack and play sheet and pack and play mattress cover is in the wash, it’s a good chance to give the pack and play a thorough wipe down. In addition, you should give it a clean anytime you notice it’s looking less than clean, after your child or a caregiver has been sick, and after any spills or accidents.

What type of cleaning products should I use to clean a pack and play?

Only use mild and gentle cleaning products to clean your pack and play. Cleaning solutions made of a mixture of warm water and baby-safe detergent or liquid dish soap tend to work well. Spot test new cleaning solutions on an inconspicuous area before cleaning more widely, to ensure it doesn’t cause any damage or discoloration to the fabric. Don’t use harsh chemicals to clean your pack and play, and never use bleach.

How do I remove stains from a pack and play?

Spot cleaning a pack and play is the safest way to remove built up dirt or stains. Use a solution of warm water and gentle detergent, and spot clean with a damp rag.

How do I sanitize a pack and play?

Pack and plays generally don’t need to be sanitized, but if you notice a weird smell after spot cleaning, you can set it out in the sunshine and allow the sun to naturally disinfect it. Harsh chemical disinfectants aren’t safe to use on a pack and play.

What’s the best way to clean a pack and play mattress?

Spot cleaning is the only safe way to clean a pack and play mattress. Never submerge a pack and play pad in water, and take care not to get it too wet when spot cleaning.

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