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Baby Toy Buying Guide

Laura Doss

Your newborn finds endless joy in just gazing at you (and vice versa), but soon he’ll start to show interest in toys. But when it comes to plaything for babies, there’s more than meets the eye. What might seem too cute could actually be too dangerous—or just a big bore. We’ve got info to help you choose wisely, so your baby is happy, engaged and perfectly safe.

What Babies Want

From 0 to 1, babies explore their fascinating new world through their senses, which are swiftly developing as they see, touch, smell, hear and taste everything they possibly can. For the first couple of months, though, babies are a light on motor skills, so they rely on their eyes and ears to soak it all in. They gravitate toward bright primary or high-contrast colors with simple designs and changes in sound. This is the best time for a crib mobile—your baby can’t reach it (it’s a strangulation hazard when they can), and it provides a great source of entertainment. Attach it about 8 to 14 inches from your baby’s eyes, then as soon as he can push himself up on hands and knees, or at 5 months old, (whichever comes first), remove it from the crib. By about 8 weeks, your baby is ready for rattles and teethers, cloth toys, soft squeeze balls, and musical and chime toys.

As soon as babies can reach and grab, they’ll get a thrill from textured toys that are safe to test out in their mouths. It’s also tummy time, and cloth interactive activity mats are perfect for that. Disks and keys on a ring give them something to hold, shake and listen to, and teething toys always win raves. “At 6 months, all those teething toys come into play as they become more orally fixated and they’re cutting teeth,” says Adam Cohen, who blogs at DadaRocks.com, a kid product review site.

When babies start to sit up, they’re also mastering hand-eye coordination and gross motor skills. “They love banging, repetition with open and shut, toys that are cause and effect,” says Adrienne Appell, spokesperson for the Toy Industry Association. They like to see what their bodies can do—and they’re dying to practice! Give them balls, push and pull toys, nesting and stacking toys, activity cubes, shape sorters, pop-up toys, squeaky toys, rubber blocks, large pop beads, and simple musical instruments.

Choosing Safe Toys

While your baby might very well be a future Pulitzer Prize-winner, she is still going stick everything, no matter how gross, in her mouth—and that can be risky. “There are more than 200,000 toy-related injuries a year that result in emergency room visits,” says Meri-K Appy, president of Safe Kids USA (formerly the Home Safety Council). Most are under 4 years old, and more than a dozen children under 15 die each year from toy-related accidents. Though your first instinct may be to swaddle your kid until he’s in high school, you don’t need to be scared; you just need to be smart.

The most basic safety tip is to purchase age-appropriate toys. “We like to think of our children as advanced and give them, with pride, something that they’re ‘ready for,’ but that can be a dangerous mistake,” Appy says. Read and heed those warning labels; they’re there for a reason and often prompted by an accident. “The back-story is tragic; it’s a loss or an injury that could be life-long,” Appy says. Most of the warning labels are for children ages 3 and under, because they’re at the highest risk for choking.

You’ll see choking hazard warnings on toys like balls, balloons, marbles, and Lego pieces. Any item small enough to fit through a toilet paper roll is small enough to fit down a young child’s windpipe, Appy explains—for instance, a ball should be more than 1.75 inches in diameter. Toy stores may have small parts testers, but the toilet paper roll offers a good guide.

Recently, button magnets and magnetic jewelry have caused alarm. They are tiny and tempting for a curious baby, and can be deadly. “If a child swallows two, they can come together in the body and injure organs,” Appy explains. Another no-no: latex balloons. Small pieces can go down your baby’s throat and get stuck. “If you must have a balloon, then Mylar is actually safer,” Appy says.

Remember, too, that well-meaning gift-givers may ignore a warning label; perhaps Grandma picked up something she loved or the nanny doesn’t read English very well. So you’ll need to check toy presents before you give them to your baby. Also, any caregivers should be well-versed in toy safety. “It’s important to talk to anyone taking care of your child,” Appy says.

Chemicals in toys

Another thing to look for on labels: phtalates, those chemicals that make plastics softer. It’s a topic that’s evolving, but Appy says that concerns are mounting that they might disrupt normal hormonal balance and could possibly be associated with behavioral issues and asthma. How to know if a toy has phtalates if it doesn’t list materials? “If your toy is marked for recycling, you’re looking for recycling #3,” she says. Luckily, Congress has already banned six types of phtalates from children’s toys, and companies like Wal-Mart, Lego, Toys R Us and Evenflo are phasing all phtalates out of their toys.

Where you shop can also impact your toy-buying. For instance, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with dollar stores, their merchandise may not pass rigorous baby toy standards. “You are definitely looking for toys that are sturdy, made by somebody who understands new regulations of toy safety, and something that will hold up with normal wear and tear,” Appy says. If you sense imminent destruction of the toy, or if there’s no label to tell you the age limit, take a pass.

 

At-Home Toy Safety

After opening any new toy, toss all packaging. Besides suffocation from plastic bags and wrappings, hard shell cases can often leave perilously sharp edges.

Noisy toys are annoying, and they can also be harmful for your baby’s sensitive ears. If you’ve purchased a toy that sounds loud to you, it’s likely too loud for your baby, Appy says. Take the batteries out or cover the speaker with tape.

With any toy, it’s important to provide some supervision for your baby’s play. “Make sure your child is using toys in a safe environment and then put them in a safe place when they’re done,” Appy says.

Storing toys neatly can be a hassle, but storing them safely is a must. Toy bins work, as well as toy chests that have lids with safety hinges so they don’t squash tiny fingers. It’s also smart to separate your baby’s toys from an older sibling’s toys. It keeps unsafe older-kid toys from your baby and reminds big siblings that they must help keep little toy parts out of baby’s hands.

Even after you’ve OK’d a new toy, inspect it now and then to make sure it’s still working properly, and hasn’t been damaged or broken in a way that could cause harm. Also, keep abreast of toy recalls by checking CPSC.gov or our constantly updated Recall Finder. Send in warranty cards and the CPSC will contact you if there’s been a recall. 

 

Hand-Me-Down Toys

They don’t make ’em like the used to, right? And that might be a good thing. “Hand-me-down toys can be very nostalgic, but in the last 10 or so years, a lot has changed,” Appy says. “We know more, and we’re looking for dangers more systematically.” Which doesn’t mean your childhood Raggedy Ann doll is off limits; it just means you need to check to see, for instance, if her button eyes are going to pop off and wind up in her mouth. Or if the paint on those beautiful blocks is lead-based. Or, says Cohen, if it’s just been collecting bacteria for too long. “If it’s been in your parents’ basement for 20 years, it’s probably not OK,” he says.

Also consider age-appropriateness. You might tear up as you hand your old Cabbage Patch doll to your baby, but she might not be ready for it. “If you don’t care if it gets ruined with your child, then OK, but if you thought it was going to be given to their children and their children’s children, you might need to wait.”

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