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Celebrate the Holidays with Safe Toys and Gifts

December 11, 2012

"Johnny wants a pair of skates. Susie wants a dolly. Nelly wants a storybook; she thinks dolls are folly."
(Lyrics from "Jolly Old St. Nicholas")

Many different cultures in the United States celebrate a variety of holidays during the month of December, often exchanging gifts with the ones they love. Unfortunately, some of those gifts may represent a safety hazard if they're not suitable for the intended recipient. That's why December is also recognized as "Safe Toys and Gifts Month," to alert people to potentially dangerous gift choices, especially for the little ones on their lists.

"We often counsel our patients and their families about gift and toy safety," says Dr. Courtney LaCaze-Adams, a board-certified pediatrician with the Washington Township Medical Foundation. "The most important factor is whether or not the gift is age-appropriate."

These days, many toys are age-graded for safety reasons, as well as for the child's developmental stage. The age declaration is usually right on the package in big, bold print.

"Of course, some children may seem more advanced than other kids their age, but you shouldn't overestimate a child's capabilities," Dr. LaCaze-Adams cautions. "A lot of these age recommendations are based on reasons such as choking hazards. For example, the government regulations on toys for children under the age of 3 specify that the parts of the toys have to be larger than 1-1/4 inches in diameter and 2-1/4 inches in length so that they are too big for the child to swallow."

When you're buying a toy for your own child or someone else's child, or if your child has received a toy from someone else, be sure to read the instructions and safety precautions that come with the package.

Watch Out for Susie's Dolly

The warnings about toys with small parts also apply to stuffed animals and other types of dolls.

"With stuffed toys and dolls, the eyes and noses should not be made of items that can fall off or be pulled off - or even be chewed off, since little kids put absolutely everything in their mouths," she says. "It's also important to watch out for the clothing on a stuffed animal or doll. Sometimes they come with bows or ribbons or strings that can present a hazard.

"Stuffed animals and dolls should always be sturdy and well-made so that the stuffing won't come out of the seams," she adds. "And you should never, ever have any stuffed toys located in areas where infants or small children sleep to avoid the danger of suffocation."

Dr. LaCaze-Adams notes that if you have multiple children of different ages in your home, it's a good idea to keep their toys in separate locations.

"Toy chests or large plastic containers with lids that close snugly can be a convenient way to keep toys separated according to age suitability," she suggests. "You don't want to make it easy for a 6-month-old to get at toys that belong to a 3-year-old or a 7-year-old. Plus, you need to make sure there is always adult supervision when kids are playing with their toys. Let the kids play in the kitchen with you while you're cooking, rather than letting them play alone upstairs."

Give Johnny a Helmet with those Skates

Sports equipment also is often labeled for age suitability, but parents should make sure to instruct the child in the proper use of all sporting equipment - including wheeled vehicles such as bicycles, tricycles, scooters, roller skates, in-line skates and skateboards.

"I always recommend that parents insist on having their children wear helmets at all times when they are playing on a moving object," Dr. LaCaze-Adams emphasizes. "Set a rule in your home that the bike doesn't get ridden if the helmet isn't on. And that includes helmets for kids who ride on the front or back of an adult's bike.

"Parents need to set a good example for their kids and be consistent when it comes to wearing helmets while biking, skating or skateboarding," she continues. "Keep the helmet right near the bike or other equipment. And be sure that each person's helmet fits properly. Many sporting goods stores in the area will gladly help parents make sure their kids have a properly fitting helmet."

Other Hazards

Toys and sports equipment are not the only items that may present a hazard for youngsters.

"One of the most common items that little kids choke on or accidentally swallow are the little round 'button' batteries that come with a variety of toys and even with the greeting cards that play music," Dr. LaCaze-Adams says. "These button batteries can cause problems with the stomach and intestines, as well as with the windpipe and esophagus if swallowed or inhaled."

Balloons are another item on Dr. LaCaze-Adams's list of things to avoid for children under age 8.

"When balloons pop, the pieces go everywhere," she explains. "It only takes one piece of a balloon to get stuck in a child's throat to cause a tragedy. One of the saddest stories I recall from my time as a pediatric resident was an 18-month-old girl who was playing with an older sibling who had a balloon. The toddler swallowed the balloon and died."

For gifts of clothing, make sure the items fit properly and won't cause the child to trip or fall. Dr. LaCaze-Adams also recommends checking sleepwear labels to ensure that they are flame-resistant and to avoid clothes for small children that have strings or ribbons, which can be a choking hazard.

When it comes to food gifts, she suggests checking food labels for ingredients that might cause allergic reactions or chemical sensitivities.

"Some kids have severe allergic reactions to peanuts, for example," she explains. "If you received food gifts that don't have ingredient labels - such as a batch of homemade cookies or candy from grandma - be sure to ask whether the items have ingredients that might not be suitable for your child. Also, for kids under 1-year-old, don't give them any small foods such as hard candies, raisins or nuts that have to be chewed, since they can be a choking hazard."

Nelly Had a Good Idea

Among the best holiday gifts for children, according to Dr. LaCaze-Adams, are storybooks that you can read with them.

"Even with books, you should make sure that they are age-appropriate," she says. "Books with paper pages, for example, might not be suitable for little kids who may try to eat the pages. Instead, look for cloth books or books that are made of coated cardboard that are easy to clean since little kids love to get their smudgy, germy handprints on their books."

And what does Dr. LaCaze-Adams consider the ideal gift for the holidays?

"Well," she responds with a chuckle, "as the mother of a 4-month-old baby, I'd love to get a good night's sleep!"