If you're getting ready to play Santa, it pays to consider toy safety as well as fun.
"More than 3 billion toys and games are sold in the United States each year and most of them are safe," explained Pediatrician Karla McNair, M.D. "However, while many toy makers follow safety guidelines for their products, some do not. For example in 2009, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled nearly 1.3 million toys or other children's products for violations of the lead paint standard. The challenge for parents is to find a toy your child will love and one that you know is safe."
The Right Toys at the Right Ages
Always read the package label to make sure that a toy is appropriate for a child's age. Guidelines published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and other groups can help you make those buying decisions.
"Keep in mind the child's age, interests and skill level," Dr. McNair continued. "All toys are not for all children. Some parents may think that a child who's advanced in comparison to his or her peers can handle toys meant for older children. But, the age levels for toys are determined by safety factors, not intelligence or maturity."
Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
"Children under the age of three tend to put everything in their mouths," she added. "Toys for children under three should be bigger than a tennis ball and have no breakable parts. If you're not sure about the appropriateness of the toy's size, consider using the toilet paper tube test. Anything that can pass through the tube is too small to be given to a child under 3 years old.
"Also, try to avoid buying toys which may have small parts that pose a choking danger. Children at this age pull, prod and twist toys. Look for toys that are well-made with tightly secured eyes, noses and other parts. Make sure surface decorations will not come off and that stuffing is not going to come out. Be especially careful of items that contain small magnets. Building sets, action figures, dolls and jewelry are examples of products containing small, powerful magnets that can be fatal if swallowed by children.
"In addition, consider if the toy has a string, ribbon, straps or a cord longer than 7 inches," Dr. McNair stated. "Avoid these toys for young children or remove the strings to prevent strangulation. Also avoid toys that have sharp edges and points. Sharp edges can cut or scratch, and sharp corners are especially dangerous.
"Think twice about buying noisy toys for children under 18 months old, as this is when a child's hearing is the most sensitive. If you're buying a toy which makes a sound, choose one that makes a noise at about the same level you would ordinarily speak to a baby.
"If your child is interested in arts and crafts, look for household art materials, including crayons and paint sets, marked with the ACMI seal from the Art and Creative Material Institute, Inc., which means that the product is non-toxic.
"Lastly, safe gifts may be wrapped in not-so-safe packaging. Make sure that wrapping paper and bows are quickly disposed of after the gift has been opened. Never let children play with ribbon, strings or balloons because of the choking danger."
Children in this age group have different safety needs. "Try to provide a safety helmet for any gift of a bike, skateboard, or rollerblades in order to prevent head injuries," Dr. McNair said. "The addition of wrist guards to your gift of rollerblades or skateboards can prevent six out of seven fractures related to injuries from using this equipment.
"Avoid toys that shoot or include parts that fly off. Slingshots and even water guns are dangerous because they invite children to target other kids. If someone gives your child a toy gun or darts, make sure that the dart or arrow has soft tips or suction cups at the end, not hard points. Toy guns should be brightly colored so they cannot be mistaken for real weapons, and kids should be taught to never point darts, arrows, or guns at anyone. BB guns or pellet rifles should not be given to kids under the age of 16."
Screen Time: The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that total screen time be limited at the maximum to one to two hours per day, for video viewing, television and computer time combined.
"Excessive screen time is strongly associated with obesity," Dr. McNair cautioned. "Even Wii games promoting physical fitness are no substitute for getting outside and being active. Violent behavior in children is also associated with exposure to on-screen violence as seen in videos and video games."
Electric toys and gaming devices should also be labeled UL, meaning they meet safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories.
For Children of All Ages
"After you've bought safe toys, it's also important to make sure that children know how to use them properly," Dr. McNair concluded. "The best way to do this isby supervising them and teaching them how to play safely while having fun. It's also important to teach children to put their toys away when they're finished, so they don't trip or fall on them, and so they are not tempting to younger children. "In addition, regularly check toys for breakage and potential hazards, including chipped or peeling paint. Damaged or dangerous toys should be repaired or thrown away. For example, wooden toys shouldn't have splinters; bikes and outdoor toys shouldn't haverust; and stuffed toys shouldn't have broken seams or exposed removable parts. Steer clear of older toys, even hand-me-downs from friends and family. These toys might have sentimental value, butthey may not meet current safety standards and may be so worn from play that they can break and become hazardous."
Karla McNair, M.D., is affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's Active Medical Staff and the Salem Pediatric Care Center, 2020 East State Street, Suite C in Salem, (330) 332-0084.