Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on December 10, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
When you think about toys, you think about fun, right? You don't think about injuries, because toys aren't supposed to hurt kids. But they can.
The best way to prevent injury is to educate yourself about the possible dangers with kids' toys. Here's what parents need to be thinking about this holiday season:
- Lead paint. Warnings about the hazard of toys with lead paint on them are all over the news these days. Children, especially small children, tend to put things in their mouths. Putting lead into your mouth, even small amounts, can lead to brain damage. Most of the products recalled and taken off store shelves so far have come from China. But that doesn't mean that all products from China have lead or that all American products are safe. You can stay up-to-date about toy recalls by signing up for the Consumer Products Safety Commission's (CPSC) e-mail updates.
- Choking hazards. Toys kill children most often when they choke on them. Children can choke on small toys or on small parts of bigger toys. To prevent choking accidents:
- Follow the age recommendations for toys. If the label says that a toy is meant for ages 3 and up because of small parts, don't buy it for your 1-year-old.
- Think about everyone who might play with a toy. Something that is perfectly safe for an older child could be deadly for a younger one. This doesn't necessarily mean you can't buy that fun toy with small parts for your ten-year-old if you have a toddler in the house or one who visits a lot. But it does mean that you need to have rules about where the toy is stored and who plays with it.
- Check toys carefully for loose parts.
- Riding toys, especially ones that can carry them into traffic. This is another big way toys can kill. Skateboards, scooters, in-line skates, bicycles and other toys with wheels can be very dangerous. If you are going to buy them, make sure that:
- Your child uses them in a safe place
- Your child wears a helmet; knee and elbow pads are a good idea, too!
- Your child is well supervised
- Strangling and/or entanglement. When toys have things like cords or chains, or when they have moving wheels or other features that can grab hair or clothes and pull hard, bad things can happen. Again, read the labels, use common sense and supervise.
- Magnets. More and more toys from building sets to cars to doll clothes are being made with small magnets, many of which can detach and be swallowed. This can be very dangerous, especially when two magnets in different parts of the intestine attach together, which can lead to holes in the intestine and other serious complications. If you have kids in the house who might put a toy in their mouths, don't buy toys with magnets.
It's not just bodily harm that parents need to be aware of. Recent studies have shown that exposure to violence through violent video games, for example, can lead to behavioral problems later on. Too many toys encourage being sedentary, which can lead to obesity. And they don't stimulate children's imagination, which isn't good for their minds. So when you're shopping for gifts, don't just buy the ones your children are pining for because of T.V. commercials. Look for toys that stimulate creativity and get kids moving, such as:
- Painting and drawing materials, and lots of paper
- Modeling clay
- Blocks and other building toys
- Dress-up clothes (Check out thrift stores for fun, inexpensive stuff.)
- Other toys that encourage make-believe, like a doctor kit or play food
- Balls and other things that get kids playing outdoors
In general, when you are buying toys, use common sense. That toy sword may not be sharp, but if your daughter is going through a phase where she's hitting everything and everyone around her, is it smart to buy it? Is there a safe place in your house or yard to play with that really cool flying toy your son wants?
No labeling can replace supervision. Children can find dangerous things to do with the safest of toys. Make sure you know what your kids are doing at all times. Better yet, do it with them!
With careful shopping, common sense and good supervision, toys can be safe, fun and good for your child.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.