A young boy, wearing a Santa hat, opens up a present under the Christmas tree and gasps with excitement.
Make sure those gifts you put under the tree this holiday season are perfect… and safe. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Toy manufacturers do an excellent job of making their products sound fun and exciting.

That doesn’t mean they’re safe.

Here’s some expert advice to help you sort out the good from the bad this upcoming holiday season.

The advocates

World Against Toys Causing Harm, a Boston-based consumer group known as W.A.T.C.H., notes that toy makers often put sales ahead of safety.

The seeds for W.A.T.C.H. were planted in 1968 after trial lawyer Edward Swartz became involved in legal battles regarding injuries children suffered from unsafe toys.

Through his work, Swartz spearheaded a crusade for toy safety and consumer awareness. Among its safety programs and industry-watch initiatives, W.A.T.C.H. publishes a popular annual 10 Worst Toys list.

Each year, more than 250,000 emergency room visits keep toy-related injuries in the spotlight. Of those, about a dozen children die from toy-related causes.

What can you do to play it safe?

The experts

Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital emergency physician Erica Michiels, MD, recommends that parents bookmark the Consumer Products Safety Commission website to check for recalls and other safety issues.

The website allows you to search the name of any toy and offers a subscription service to receive notifications of toy safety developments.

“Every parent should be especially vigilant about babies and toddlers sharing playrooms with older siblings,” Dr. Michiels said. “Choking is probably the greatest risk.”

The safety professionals

Of the toys that pose potential risks, more than a third are for kids younger than 4, said Jennifer Hoekstra, a former injury prevention specialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“Avoid choking and swallowing hazards by picking up small parts and securely storing away as soon as play is over,” Hoekstra advised.

“Yes, we have fantastic toy safety regulations in the United States,” she added. “There is no need to be afraid of every toy. There is a need to be educated about the toys, how they should be played with and the potential risks that they present.”

Buy gifts that are age appropriate. Age recommendations are based on the ability of a child to safely handle and perform the function of a toy.

“That means that a toy labeled for ages 12 and up isn’t appropriate for younger kids,” Hoekstra said.

Manufacturers invest significant resources in third-party compliance testing, and they want to sell those toys to as many children as possible, she noted.

“You can trust that if a 9-year-old could safely, properly play with that toy, it would say so,” she said.

But Hoekstra also acknowledged that the many variations within testing and compliance standards can allow toys to hit the shelves with questionable characteristics. This is the type of risk for which groups like W.A.T.C.H. are on the lookout.

More play-it-safe tips

  • Supervise your kids during play, especially with new toys. Show them how toys are intended to be used. Observe them during play for potential hazards, and redirect risky play. (Toys with loud sound effects, for example, shouldn’t be aimed at or close to kids’ ears.)
  • Don’t buy painted toys or art supplies that aren’t clearly labeled “non-toxic.”
  • Check over heirloom toys from grandma or grandpa. They may not meet current safety standards, such as toys with pull strings that present a strangulation risk.
  • If you are buying a ride toy, always get a helmet, too.
  • Never leave magnets within reach of children. A magnet will literally pull itself through tissue (stomach, intestines) to attach to a second magnet, causing deadly damage.
  • When playtime is over, put things away. Store toys in secure containers and spots that are safe. Think beyond the actual toy: Can my child get pinched by opening this cabinet? Can something fall off the shelf and hurt them?
  • If you have kids of different ages, use extra caution when buying toys. Just because pony beads or magnets are great for your 10-year-old daughter, that doesn’t mean her 2-year-old brother is safe.