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Toddler Toy Guidelines: A Buying Guide for the Safest Toddler Toys

Updated on June 28, 2012

Toddler Toy Guidelines: A Buying Guide for Toddler Toys

When it comes to buying toys for toddlers, the emphasis should be safety, fun, and education. While some toys come with labels, others still do not. And toddlers present some unique problems for parents. At this age, children love to move! They want to swing their arms (and their toys). They revel in the sound of a wooden toy upon a metal cabinet.

Additionally, unlike older children, toddlers love to put things in or near their mouths—it's how they explore the world around them. This tendency presents a substantial safety risk from so many toys on the market, especially ones that lack suggested age ranges. Unsuspecting parents are many times the cause of accidental injury to infants and toddlers. This toddler toy guide provides parents with a resource for picking safe, enjoyable toys that will give their children hours of safe fun.

Toddler toys should emphasize safety, fun, and learning.
Toddler toys should emphasize safety, fun, and learning. | Source

1. Avoid Magnetic Toys and Small Magnets

Most people think of magnets as harmless, but unfortunately, that magnetic alphabet on your fridge, or the magnetic button from your mother-in-law, could pose a real threat to toddler safety, and even result in death. Because magnets attract and repel one another, they wreak havoc in the human digestive system. A toddler swallowing just a few magnetic marbles will experience severe pain or even a puncture in his or her delicate intestinal lining.

This unique property of magnets also means that unless someone saw the toddler swallow the magnet, a medical professional may have difficulty diagnosing the exact issue. It's best to keep all magnets well out of reach of all toddlers and avoid any toys—even magnetic alphabets!

2. Do not Buy Metal Jewelry

It seems like every few weeks a new story surfaces about the presence of lead or choking hazards in metal jewelry. While metal jewelry makes a tempting gift for a toddler, primarily because of its durability, the risk of lead poisoning is real. Current estimates state that around 20% of all metal jewelry for children has lead under or in its metal coating. Because toddlers love to put things in or near their mouths, that is an unacceptable risk.

3. Try Simple Toys

While we adults love complexity in our toys (think laptops and iPods!), toddlers tend to love simplicity. We don't have to spend $50 to give our children truly enjoyable, educational toys. With greater simplicity comes additional safety, too. Some ideas for simple, educational toys that toddlers love include:

  • Wooden Toys: animals, large letter blocks (avoid small blocks, which still pose a choking hazard), or vehicles.
  • Big kitchen spoons and metal pots: children love noise and giving them a large kitchen spoon free of sharp edges and a small stainless steel pot to strike is just about the best way for them to spend the afternoon. These toys also teach motor skills and develop sensory ability.

More expensive and complex does not mean more fun and educational for a toddler. Remember the age-old joke that kids love the box more than the toy that came with it? There's a reason this is the case!

Wooden toys are among the safest and most enjoyable for toddlers.
Wooden toys are among the safest and most enjoyable for toddlers. | Source

4. Do Your Own Safety Check

When you do buy a toy, do your own safety check. Look for choking hazards that the manufacturer may have missed. Most importantly, think like a toddler! Even if the toy has no loose pieces, it may have some parts that a good smack on the ground might free. Your toddler will be playing rough with this toy, so you need to plan ahead and determine if the toy can take the abuse without exposing your child to risk.

Additionally, look up information online about the toy, keeping a keen eye on contamination and recall reports. Many toys, especially used ones, contain lead or other harmful substances. The tendency of toddlers to mouth their toys can lead to poisoning. Toys with lead look like any other toy. Rarely does a toy have any external sign of contamination. A quick home lead test kit or search online, however, will easily prevent toxicity in a toddler.

5. Think Twice about Balls and Balloons

Two of the most common causes of suffocation and death in children are small balls and balloons. These seem obvious, but many parents forget that small balls include things like golf balls, marbles, and decorative pebbles—the very kind so many of us keep in easy reach on our coffee tables. Likewise, balloons pose as much threat after popping as they do fresh from the bag. The little pieces left on the ground after a party attract toddlers like honey attracts flies. Many of these leftover pieces are just the right size to block an airway. Remember to use foil balloons for parties and save water-balloons for a summer or two down the road; likewise, keep every type of ball with a diameter under 1 1/2-inch up high.

6. Check for Toy Recalls

Before giving any toy to a toddler, check to see if the government or manufacturer has issued a recall. You can do so at the following website:

If you do discover that one of your toddler's toys is on the list, follow government or manufacturer guidelines regarding the recall. Do not give away or sell the toy.

7. Use Common Sense

A two-year-old will probably not fare well with a Lego set, but a five-year-old is a different matter. With a toddler in the house, sometimes parents forget to take a few minutes for themselves and think. Successful parenting often relies on coming to decisions quickly, even on the fly, but when it comes to toys in the hands of a toddler, a few moments of thought might mean the difference between a sick child and a happy one. So slow down, take a few moments, and consider. If in doubt about the appropriateness of a toy for your toddler, always err on the side of caution.

8. Consider Books

While they may seem old-fashioned to some, books have a long history with toddlers. Not only do they provide a valuable first experience with learning, one that develops powerful visual skills, but books on the whole offer safe fun, too. Book publishers produce thousands of thick cardboard books made specifically to stand up to the serious wear and tear of toddler-hood. These books often have a number of sensory and learning components—a few sheets of soft cloth, a sparkly strip of paper, and a mirror do wonders for engaging a toddler with a book.

9. Paper or Plastic? Neither.

Most of us have enough sense not to hand a toddler a bag, but not all of us know that paper presents its own risks. Paper contains several chemical components that may harm a toddler's delicate health. Additionally, and most importantly, paper has a tendency when wet to ball up. Since toddlers love to explore everything with their mouths, they should not have easy access to flimsy paper toys, like paper dolls, intended for older children. Parents should especially be wary of wrapping paper, whose dyes and cheap production methods make it a real toxicity danger.

Cardboard, especially the sturdy, non-toxic stuff used for most toddler books, is another matter. Manufacturers design these books to stand-up to most toddlers. Nonetheless, if you notice that your toddler's favorite book has some ragged parts that might come off soon with a little chewing, you should replace the book. Do not give away the chewed up book

10. Look for Smooth Edges

Because toddlers love to put things in their mouths, they also end up putting things very near their eyes. For this reason, parents need to be on guard against toys with sharp edges. If a toddler has an older sibling, these sharp-edged toys may come in the form of metal air planes and or even toy kitchen utensils.

Additionally, some toys—especially plastic ones—develop extraordinarily sharp edges when they break. Keep a close eye on the condition of toys. A sharp edge can cut skin around the face and neck and do serious damage to the eyes and mouth.

A special warning about wood toys: while wood toys generally hold up very well, some may splinter after extended exposure to moisture, such as the saliva of a toddler or bathwater. Be particularly wary of both the broken splinters and the section of the toy from which the splinters came. However, the benefit of wood toys is that repair of these sections is usually quite easy. If a wood toy splinters, take a bit of sand paper and gently sand down the sharp or ragged edges. The toy will be good as new!

Jump ropes pose a serious danger to active toddlers.
Jump ropes pose a serious danger to active toddlers. | Source

11. Avoid Ropes, Strings, and Scarves

While a length of jump rope or a long, skinny scarf may seem relatively harmless, and in most cases, they are, toddlers have a uniquely dangerous relationship to these items. Remember: toddlers love to move and love to put things near their mouth. This means that toddlers very often bring things near their necks and start moving around. Because of this natural tendency, even a scarf may become a strangulation risk.

Few of us can keep all scarfs or long strips of cloth away from children all the time, but most of us can keep the more obvious ropes and strings out of a toddler's reach. Beware of the most common types of rope or string that regularly endanger and harm toddlers:

  • Pull-string toys: these include many older talking dolls or older versions of the spinning farm sound toys.
  • Jump ropes, exercise or rehabilitation cords, kites
  • Loose power or cable cords

Parents can monitor scarves or other strips of cloth with a close eye to make sure that toddlers do not strangle themselves, but its best simply to keep these out of reach.

12. Noise is Good, but Only in Moderation

Researchers and parents have noticed a correlation between loud toys in infancy and hearing loss later in life. It's important that parents not shy away from toys that provide children with sensory stimulation, but parents should not give certain toys to toddlers or use them in close proximity. Some examples of overly loud toys include the following:

  • Toy Cap Guns — the most notorious offender, these toys produce a very loud, sudden noise.
  • Toy Air Guns — these are newer to the market and create loud noises with air.
  • Electronic Toy Guns — some of these produce music, gunshots, or other sound effects at a very high noise threshold.
  • Musical Toys — toddlers like to put toys near their ears and some toys that produce music when squeezed or moved are way too noisy when placed next to the ear.

Limiting this sort of exposure to your toddler may require some rule-setting with older siblings or friends.

Works Consulted

Axelsson A, Jerson T. Noisy toys: a possible source of sensorineural hearing loss. Pediatrics. 76(4):574-8. PMID: 4047801.

Houston-Price C, Burton E, Hickinson R, Inett J, Moore E, Salmon K, Shiba P. Picture book exposure elicits positive visual preferences in toddlers. J Exp Child Psychol. 104(1):89-104. Epub: 2009 May 8. PMID: 19427645.

Kabre R, et al. Hazardous complications of multiple ingested magnets: report of four cases. European Journal of Pediatric Surgery. 19(3):187-9. Epub 2008 Nov 20. PMID: 19023855.

Simcock G, DeLoache J. Get the picture? The effects of iconicity on toddlers' reenactment from picture books. Developmental Psychology. 42(6):1352-7. PMID: 17087568.

Stephenson M. Danger in the toy box. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 19(3):187-9. PMID: 15867837.


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