Child’s play: Tips for buying safe and healthy toys

November 30, 2015 Providence Health Team

It’s so cool. The latest gadget you’ve picked out for your 5-year-old – the one he’s been asking for since summer – will make the perfect holiday gift. But is it interactive?   Are there parts that could break off and get lodged in a small throat, or poke an eye?  Is it made with plastic parts that contain phthalates or polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Both chemicals have been proven to negatively impact children’s health.

When it comes to buying toys, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of options and lots of factors to consider. If you’re confused by all the recommendations and warnings, here are a few tips to help make sense of the information and find a toy that’s just right for your child.

Toys to encourage interaction

Although it’s hard to compete with all the flashy electronic s and shiny parts, Resa Bradeen, M.D., regional medical director at Providence Women & Children’s Services in Portland, Oregon, suggests that parents look for interactive toys that promote imaginative play. It could be a game that requires interplay with others, but it also could be a toy that encourages a child to sing, dance or solve puzzles.

Dr. Bradeen says children learn from interacting with their parents, and they also crave that type of attention. “If it’s an electronic device that promotes interaction, that’s good,” says Dr. Bradeen. “But if it’s something that just allows the child to zone out, it’s not helpful.”

Simple is good

A good toy (perhaps your child’s favorite one day) doesn’t have to be expensive, big or complicated. Some of the classics, such as toy cars and building blocks, can be the most enjoyable to play with and may keep a child’s interest for long periods of time. Look for toys that encourage creativity, imagination or interaction.  “You don’t need fancy toys to promote that,” says Dr. Bradeen.

Watch those button batteries

Button batteries are found in a long list of electronic devices: Toys, games, remote controls, cell phones and even flameless candles use the lithium-based batteries. The size and shape is particularly appealing to young children but they can be extremely dangerous if swallowed. Make sure battery compartments of all electronic toys are taped shut and loose batteries are always stored out of your child’s reach.

Plastics and chemicals

Although the federal government highly regulates toy manufacturing and imports, parents shouldn’t assume that all materials are safe.  For example, six types of phthalates are permanently banned for use in children’s toys and care products. However, the ban on phthalates does not apply to component parts (the inner workings) or packaging. Furthermore, unbanned phthalates or an alternative plasticizer still can be used in manufacturing toys and other products for children.

Out of the mouth of babes

“Repeated exposure (to toxic materials) and ingestion is of greater concern with younger kids,” says Dr. Bradeen. Children under the age of 3 still are mouthing objects, putting them at much greater risk of choking.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2013 there were approximately 256,700 toy-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms, and most toy-related deaths were due to asphyxiation.

If you have doubts about the size of a toy or part, measure it with a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels. If the object fits inside the tube, it’s a choking hazard and shouldn’t be given to children under 3.

A quality toy company that is in compliance with international regulations will have warning labels with information on ways to minimize risk. If your child tends to mouth objects more than most kids his or her age, watch for warnings such as, “Harmful if swallowed,” and “Wash hands after use.”

Toy Safety Guidelines

When buying toys for children of all ages, as a general rule:

  • Read labels.
  • Choose age-appropriate toys and products.
  • Seek out interactive toys and games.
  • Look on the package for the code ASTM F963. This means the toy meets the most recent government safety standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials. All toys sold in the US must have it. ASTM D4236 will appear on the packaging of art supplies. This label means that toxicologists have looked at the ingredients and have listed the warnings.
  • Avoid toys with recycling symbols No. 3 (PVC) and No. 7 (contains BPA).
  • Look for products labeled nontoxic and BPA-free.
  • Don’t buy antique toys. Toys manufactured before safety regulations were in place often contain toxic substances such as lead paint.
  • Stay up to date on the latest recalls.
  • Check to see if the toy can withstand impact and not break into dangerous shards.

If you have questions about toy safety, talk to your pediatrician. If you or your child need a doctor, find a local primary care provider here.

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