In Search of Safety: A Mom's 8-Step Guide to Toy Selection and Everyday Use


As the mom of two boys, I can tell you that there are two kinds of toys: 1) those that are inherently dangerous (such as ATVs, BB guns, and lead-tainted toys) and 2) those made dangerous in the hands of children (nearly everything). This 8-step guide to toy selection and everyday use includes tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, information about the kit used by Marilyn Furer to detect lead on her grandchild’s bib (resulting in Wal-Mart's recall), and personal accounts of my adventures in child safety.

1. Choose Carefully

Follow guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics for Toy Safety and its Holiday Safety Tips:

  • Select toys to suit the age, abilities, skills and interest level of the intended child. Toys too advanced may pose safety hazards for younger children. 
  • Before buying a toy or allowing your child to play with a toy that he has received as a gift, read the instructions carefully. 
  • To prevent both burns and electrical shocks, don't give young children (under age ten) a toy that must be plugged into an electrical outlet. Instead, buy toys that are battery-operated.
  • Children under age three can choke on small parts contained in toys or games. Government regulations specify that toys for children under age three cannot have parts less than 1 1/4 inches in diameter and 2 1/4 inches long.
  • Children under age 8 can choke or suffocate on uninflated or broken balloons. Remove strings and ribbons from toys before giving them to young children. 
  • Watch for pull toys with strings that are more than 12 inches in length. They could be a strangulation hazard for babies.

2. Respect Age Restrictions

I made the mistake of dismissing age restrictions – once. At 3½, my son had well-developed fine motor skills and, unlike other children his age, never put objects (toy parts, coins) in his mouth. He loved manipulating small items so I thought that Lite Brites would be a great Christmas gift for him, despite its age 4 and up recommendation.

On a Sunday afternoon in February, my son had wiggled his way under a bed, fussing about a Lite Brite in his nose. I coaxed him out and attempted to remove the offending object, which he had tried to use as a tool to clean his nose. Having had earlier success with the removal of an un-popped popcorn kernel, I thought that I could quickly take care of the toy. Instead of removing it, however, I moved it further from reach. After conferring with the on-call physician at our doctor’s office, I took him to a urgent care facility.

My son seemed to grasp that he should be still and not disturb the toy lodged in his nasal cavity while we waited (approximately 3 hours) to see a physician. I relaxed about his predicament but began to be concerned about perceptions of my parenting abilities. In the examining/procedure room, a young, energetic male physician questioned me with “what happened here?” and smiled when I responded “flawed logic,” recalling, it seemed, adolescent fun gone awry. He quickly retrieved the Lite Brite and offered it to me as a souvenir before I headed home, clear-nosed child in tow.

Here’s a resource for detecting the presence of objects in the nose from WebMD.

3. Modify Toys if Needed

If you happen to receive blatantly or potentially unsafe items as gifts and/or a toy is slightly different than what you expected based on its packaging, discard the obviously unsafe or modify the item to make it safe. For example, I have removed beads from a cloth book that was an infant gift. The beads were firmly attached (my tugging did not dislodge them) but I felt much more comfortable allowing my child to play with the book sans beads.

Warning and tantrum-avoidance tip: do not remove parts or make modifications in the presence of your child.

4. Read Instructions

Instructions apply not only to toys but other children's products. For example, I bought a Happy Camper playpen/sleeping area for short overnight trips to grandparents' homes. This product had hinge covers that allowed you to lock railings in place so that the sides would not come up randomly (at night, when everyone was sleeping). These play yards were recalled because of hazards associated with improper set-up.

5. Calculate Safety Windows

Since nearly any toy can be made dangerous by an imaginative child, you can assign times that you think your child could play safely with a toy without your direct supervision. The time is not measured in minutes but rather in tasks such as taking a shower; going to the bathroom; fixing a sandwich; or preparing dinner (typically broken into separate tasks such as defrosting chicken, boiling water, etc.)

For example, small objects may be embedded safely in a toy when purchased but can become dislodged and accessible after hours of play. Likewise, parts of a toy may be broken, leaving sharp edges exposed.

Checking toys periodically and children much of the time minimizes the chance that toys will be made hazardous and the child is harmed.

6. Consider These Playthings

Blocks are great for sparking a child’s imagination and big ones, though bulky, are pretty easy to pick up and put away. Their danger lies primarily in the throwing of or tripping over; for example, a child may injure another child or himself/herself by hurling a wooden block or said toy may ricochet off a wall and back onto the child. Nevertheless, here are some block options:

Soft balls made of sturdy materials that won’t come apart are ideal. I like the round but easy-grip, squeezable balls (purchased years ago by me from Discovery Toys but just like these at

Technically books aren’t toys but infants/toddlers haven’t learned that yet. A child can be occupied for 15 minutes or more with a book. You can buy cloth books that are nearly indestructible or board books with the same pictures and content as traditional favorites such as Good Night Moon or The Runaway Bunny. 

7. Check Recalls

Carrie did a great post on recalls and offered resources such as for products that have caused or could cause safety problems. You can also visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s website and do searches on specific products and toy companies at both sites.

You may want to review the safety practices of toy companies (manufacturers, distributors, marketers, retailers). All claim to have children’s safety in mind; however, they should: 

  • Set standards or refer to industry standards that they adhere to
  • Have a formal testing process that checks raw materials (components, inks, paint) and finished products
  • Engage a third-party testing laboratory or have an operation dedicated to testing (independent of sales and merchandising groups) 
  • Reject products that don’t meet standards
  • Design toys with standards in mind, not tested after container loads or truck loads have arrived at the distribution center.

The LEGO Group, for example, complies with the European Toy Directive and ASTM standard F963 (U.S.A).

Warning: please don’t let your children put Legos in their mouths, noses, or other orifices.

8. Test for lead if you'd like.

My children are beyond the slobbery, put-everything-into-the-mouth stage but if they weren’t I’d keep an eye on the reports of lead-laden toys and children’s accessories. Not being able to discern danger through a visual inspection makes me uneasy. It disturbed Marilyn Furer: she used a home lead testing kit to detect danger in her grandson's bib, resulting in a recall by Wal-Mart. (See Andrea's post on faulty, dangerous products from China.)

But are home testing kits any good? 

BOTTOM LINE: Watch child's play or read recall lists to learn of hazards based on real-life product usage, intended or otherwise. Then use your intellect and imagination to play it safe.

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Guest's picture

I'm no longer the mom of small children; in fact I'm a grandmother wannabe. I'd like to chime in about one more not-quite-toy hazard, and that's Mom's own jewelry. I make and sell jewelry, and I find that a lot of what's called "pewter" or "white metal" can be absolutely loaded with lead. We had a school-aged youngster in our city die of lead poisoning from swallowing the fob on a key ring. So watch out for those key rings, earrings, charms, necklace pendants, and other danglers. If they're not plainly labeled "sterling silver" or "gold" (with karat marking), you can't tell what's in them. They're bright, shiny, fascinating, and potentially lethal even to older kids. I've quit using anything that's not a precious metal, but these items are everywhere.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for the tip. When I read some of the recall/news reports about lead, I had noticed that there were some kids who had swallowed jewelry or small items, and developed lead poisoning as a result. Thanks for mentioning that there is a way to do a label check. I also learned that you can check paints for non-toxic labeling.

Speaking of things that children may swallow, silica gel is not considered poisonous; however it is considered a choking hazard. I learned this from a call to poison control after one of my children (the one who never did unexpected things) opened a silica gel packet in a box of shoes and consumed it very quickly. Here's a link to a resource: Carolinas Poison Control.

Guest's picture

I thought this article was very informative and useful.

However... is it really necessary to point out that blocks can hurt if you trip over them, throw them at another child, or have them ricochet off a wall? Any toy can be damaging if you include the possibility that.

Julie Rains's picture

Blocks -- my brand of reality/humor (one of my children had to have a butterfly bandage after tripping over a LEGO duplo). 

Reading the list of reasons for recalls makes you realize how tough toy-makers have it (though they certain can check for the basics -- small parts, sharp edges, and lead) as kids seem to come up with the wackiest things to do with toys.

Guest's picture

Really enjoyed your article and as the manager of a UK toy retail company - I liked your common sense attitude. Thanks. Really good stuff. Will recommend it to my staff.

Guest's picture

This photo is copyrighted from my flickr account. There was no verification of permission to use this photo. Please remove it from your website this instant!

Julie Rains's picture

Done guest -- and my sincerest apologies.

Just to let people know, I do my absolute best to check copyright status and honor the status when I post photos initially but can/perhaps should start checking to see if I looked at something cross-eyed or if the copyright status has changed from the intiial post.

Guest's picture

Thanks for your common sense article. With all the safety concerns around toys, my family now buys only natural wooden toys for our daughter. I'm sure many more parents are switching from plastic to toys made of natural materials.


Guest's picture

Great tips. Frankly, I am really surprised that toys are still being sold with lead in them. And then there is all the toys that have the estrogen mimicing plasticizers in them. Argh! What's a mother to do?

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