Safe Toys for the Holidays

Holiday toys for kids should be free of choking and other hazards

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

On the first day of Christmas, my mommy gave to me… three non-choking-hazard toys, two BPA-free figures and a stuffed animal without removable parts... How safe are the toys under your tree this year?

There isn't much time left to stock up on all the gifts that will be in stockings and under the tree Christmas morning – not to mention what Santa might bring too. But it's also not too late to make sure all those new toys are safe for kids.

Whether it's making sure a particular gift is age-appropriate for a child or making sure that it has been made of high-quality materials, parents and other gift givers want to be sure their presents will be a source of joy and not danger to a child.

"This time of year is very stressful for parents trying to buy gifts for their children," said pediatrician Thomas Seman, MD, of North Shore Pediatrics in Danvers, Mass. "Typically they try to buy toys that interest them and they feel would interest the child. Frequently, this results in parents buying toys that are too old for the child, and the child is at risk for having toys whose parts are inappropriately sized for him/her."

Sometimes it is not just the size of the toy or its parts which makes it inappropriate for a child, however.

"If the toy is too old for the child, the developmental aspects of the toy may not interest the child because he/she is not there yet," Dr. Seman said. "What a waste of a good present!"

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that gift givers take into consideration a child's age and interests but also their skill level, which varies from one child to the next. Also be sure that the directions for any toys are clear to you and even your child, if that's relevant – and follow those directions.

Be sure to read the labels since most toys will provide an appropriate age range and do note that small parts may be choking hazards. Noting that clothes, stuffed animals and dolls are "flame retardant/resistant" and/or "washable" or made from "hygienic materials" will help you choose safer products too.

On the day kids open gifts, make sure all packaging and plastic wrapping are immediately discarded so they do not become choking or suffocation hazards.

Often, for the youngest children, the key is keeping toys simple.

"The basic toys that require little or any electronics are the best for the younger child," Dr. Seman said. "Developing a variety of skills is important at this age. Those buttons, switches, puzzle pieces, blocks to balance and build with and imagination require the fastest processor around – namely the human mind."

The other aspect parents should consider is a toy's quality and safety. In these cases, the long-time trusted names are often trusted for a reason.

"Name brands that have been many years in existence will typically follow the safety requirements set by the government and other agencies," Dr. Seman said. "Crayons should be made in the US for safety reasons, and sometimes those discount store knock-off toys are really too good to be true.

Inspecting toys for safety doesn't end with the purchase of a gift either. Some toys require periodic check-ups from parents to make sure the wear and tear of playing hasn't made them unsafe.

"Any painted toys should be carefully inspected periodically to make sure that there is no peeling," Dr. Seman said. "Paint chips should be safe, usually, but you can never be too safe."

Parents should also look for rough edges or splinters that should be sanded or rusty parts that should be discarded. Any toys that become damaged or dangerous over time should be repaired or tossed in the trash immediately.

Below are some specific hazards to look for in new toys.

Sharp Edges and Points – No sharp glass or metal edges should be on toys for kids under 8 years old. Broken toys can also expose sharp edges or dangerous points or prongs. Watch also for wires inside broken toys that can cut or stab children.

Small Parts – No toys intended for children under 3 can legally have small parts, including removable eyes and noses on stuffed animals and dolls and the small removable squeakers on squeeze toys.

Loud Noises – Cap guns and other noise makers might seem fun to little ones, but kids are susceptible to hearing damage from toys that are too loud. Noise-making guns should not be fired indoors or too close to the ear.

Cords and Strings – Any kind of long string or cord can become a strangulation hazard for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, so never hang toys with these features in cribs or playpens. Make sure crib gyms are also taken out of cribs when a child can pull up to a crawling or standing position.

Flying Objects – What child doesn't love throwing things? As long as it's light and/or soft, this isn't a big deal, but children should not have access to sporting equipment like darts or arrows with sharp points that can be dangerous.

Safer versions of arrows and darts will have suction cups, soft cork tips or other protective tips. Also avoid purchasing toys such as dart guns in which a creative child might shoot something that isn't intended, such as nail or pen.

Electric Toys – The CPSC requires electrical toys, such as toy trains, not to exceed certain maximum temperatures and to have warning labels and secure electrical construction. These toys should only be used with adult supervision and children under 8 should not play with toys that have heating elements.

Baby Toys – The biggest hazard for the littlest children is choking. Make sure any rattles, squeeze toys, teethers or other toys cannot lodge in a child's throat or have pieces that could break off and become a choking hazard.

Of course, some of the best gifts parents can give their children are the ones that involve interaction between the parent and their children and that engage children's minds.

"Let the child use his/her imagination," Dr. Seman advised. "Read books to them or have them read themselves."

Review Date: 
December 15, 2012