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Grandparents, Keep Kids Safe in Toyland

Buying toys for your grandchildren is one of the joys of grandparenting. Before you hit the stores this holiday season, though, remember that the best toys are not just fun but also safe. By choosing the right gifts for your grandchild's age group, you'll delight your little one while avoiding a toy-related accident.

"The leading cause of toy-related deaths and injuries is choking from small toys or parts," says Nychelle Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Children under age 3 tend to put toys in their mouth, she explains. If the toy is small enough, it can get stuck in the child's throat. Marbles, small balls, coins, and uninflated or broken balloons are especially dangerous.

For this reason, "always look for an age-labeling guide on the toy package, which will tell you which ages can safely play with it," Fleming advises. Even if you think your grandchild is very smart or responsible for his age, follow the label. "These guides are based on safety."

How do you know if a toy is too small? "Avoid anything smaller than the child's own fist," says Denise Dowd, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City, Mo. She also suggests you use the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet tissue as a guide. "If you can fit the toy into it, it's too small for a younger child."

For babies, toddlers and preschoolers

  • Stay alert for choking hazards. On stuffed animals or dolls, make sure eyes and noses are fastened tightly. Stay away from those with buttons or glued plastic pieces. Choose rattles or teethers too large to slip down a baby's throat.

  • Don't buy toys or clothing with long strings, cords, loops, or ribbons. If these get wrapped around the neck, the child could be strangled. Likewise, avoid necklaces.

  • Once a baby can pull himself up on hands and knees, dangling crib mobiles or "baby gyms" strung across a crib are no longer safe.

  • Avoid baby walkers, which can tip over or tumble down stairs. Choose a non-movable activity center instead.

  • Pass up toys with batteries—especially small button-sized batteries. These can cause internal injuries if swallowed.

For school-age children

  • Choose crayons, paint sets, and other art supplies that are marked "nontoxic" or have this approval code: "ASTM D-4236."

  • Avoid toys with sharp glass or metal edges, especially for children under age 8.

  • All electric toys should be labeled "UL-approved." Electric toys that heat up are unsafe for children under 8.

  • Beware of toy basketball nets. Many have been recalled because of strangulation risks.

Get pre-approval

Always check with your grandchild's parents before buying a gift, experts suggest. Getting their approval could save you from choosing something that won't be well received, for safety or other reasons. For instance, parents with a toddler in the house may not want their older children to get toys with small parts.

Revisit the classics

Your grandchildren may love computer games, but "there's nothing wrong with getting back to basics," says Dr. Dowd. Especially for the younger set, classic toys such as dolls, puppets, modeling clay, and puzzles are good for many reasons. "These are safe, fun, interactive, and they encourage the child's mind and creativity," she says.

Offer your "presence"

In a world where many parents have less time to spend with their children, the greatest present may be your attention. Consider spending time with your grandchildren, making homemade holiday foods, crafts, or gifts. Treat them to an afternoon at the movies, the bowling alley, or a play. As Dr. Dowd puts it, "Grandparents are a wealth of knowledge and experience in themselves, and time spent with your grandchildren means more than you may realize."

Just say no to these

Some gifts are just not a good idea, period—no matter how much your grandchildren want them. For safety's sake, keep these items off your list:

  • Trampolines. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges adults not to buy or allow children to use trampolines at home, school, or on the playground. Typical injuries include bone fractures, sprains, and wounds to the head and face.

  • Paintball and other projectile toys. Children can suffer serious eye injuries from toys that shoot or fire paintballs, darts, missiles, or arrows. A child-safe dart has a soft tip made of cork or rubber.

  • BB guns or pellet rifles. These are not toys. They're weapons powerful enough to wound and kill.

  • Loud toys. Exploding toy caps and other noise-making playthings can damage a child's hearing, especially if held close to the ear. Watch for this CPSC noise warning: "Do not fire closer than one foot to the ear. Do not use indoors."

For more information on toy safety or for updates on unsafe toys that have been recalled, visit the CPSC website at http://www.cpsc.gov.