Stuffing your little collector's stocking with his heart's desires may be high on your list. But every parent's number one concern should be to make sure that whatever it is you wrap up for your child this year, it's safe. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), more than 120,000 children were treated in hospital emergency rooms in 1998 for toy-related injuries, and 14 children died.
Being a member of the safety police is a year-round job for any parent. But the batch of new toys introduced during the holidays each year calls for extra caution. Here are some life-saving rules to follow this season and every day hereafter.
Stay Updated on Toy Recalls
By far, most toys on the market today are safe. But occasionally a company will voluntarily recall a product because of defects or reports of injuries or death. The CPSC has set up an automated email list that will help you stay up-to-date with recalls. Send the message "Join CPSCINFO-L" to firstname.lastname@example.org and you'll be automatically added to the list.
Make Sure Toys Are Appropriate to Your Child's Age
Most toy-related deaths occur in children who are 4 and under, says Angela Mickalide, Program Director at National Safe Kids Campaign, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization. Choking is the number one cause of death. It's crucial that children 4 and under are not playing with toys meant for their older siblings: tiny building blocks, arts and crafts kits, board games with small playing pieces -- anything with small objects that could be accidentally swallowed.
"Some parents think that their preschooler is smarter than other kids that age, and therefore they allow her to play with toys that are not meant for her age level," says Mickalide. "But the truth is that injury is not related to intelligence but to physiological and cognitive development."
Read Beyond the Labels
Most toy manufacturers do properly warn consumers about potential choking hazards in their toys, as the law requires. But a startling report -- issued this November by the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) -- finds that some toy manufacturers don't comply with these regulations. The PIRG survey reveals that some warning labels don't get updated, and that some stores still sell small unpackaged toys -- such as small rubber balls -- without warning labels.
To help you determine what size toy might be a choking hazard, National Safe Kids Campaign suggests that you buy a "small parts tester," available at toy, drug, and hardware stores. By placing parts inside this inexpensive device, you can see whether or not they are of choking size.
Keep Kids Away From Balloons
This advice almost seems alarmist. But the fact is that latex balloons are the number one nonfood choking hazard, according to the CPSC. "Even children as old as 8 have choked on a deflated balloon," says Ken Giles, spokesman for the CPSC. "The latex covers the back of the throat, suffocating the child." Other top choking hazards include nuts, hard candy, and popcorn.
Avoid Buying Toys From Thrift Shops and Garage Sales
"The toy industry, in cooperation with the CPSC, does a good job of getting items off the store shelves in the event of a recall," says Giles. "But you'll still find a lot of recalled items at thrift stores."
Furniture in particular -- highchairs, playpens, cribs -- should be purchased new and not from a garage sale, where it may be damaged or not in compliance with newer industry standards. Also, clothing found at thrift stores may still have drawstrings, which present a choking hazard.
Be Wary of Electronic Toys
There are two reasons for this. First, some electric toys contain a heating element that can cause burns. "A heating element is essentially a toy with an electric light bulb," explains Giles. "Toy kitchen ranges, for example, use these, and shouldn't be played with by kids under 8."
And second, electronic toys use batteries. "The danger with electronic toys is not electrocution, but rather choking," explains Mickalide. "Kids can take out the batteries and put them in their mouth," she explains. Most new electric toys have childproof battery compartments, but you should always be cautious.
Finally, be sure to safely dispose of any wrapping paper or plastic that comes off that carefully selected toy. And don't forget to give your child the most important gift of all: time spent with you!