In the movie "A Christmas Story," Ralphie sets out to convince the world that a Red Ryder BB gun is the perfect gift. "You'll shoot your eye out!" was the response he got from his parents, teacher and even Santa Claus. It's one of the more memorable quotes from this Christmas classic, but unfortunately, the dangers associated with new toys may come true for too many people as they celebrate the holidays.
About half of all toy purchases in the U.S. occur between the Friday after Thanksgiving and Christmas. These new toys and sporting equipment are responsible for thousands of injuries to children every year. According to a report released by the Consumer Product Safety Council (CPSC), approximately 181,500 children younger than 15 years of age were treated in hospital emergency departments due to toy-related injuries in 2010. Non-motorized scooters continued to be the category of toys with the most injuries.
"It's important to pay close attention to the toys that children receive during the holiday season," explained Pediatrician Karla McNair, M.D. "Some toys are recommended for older children because they may be hazardous in the hands of a younger child. Teach older children to help keep their toys away from younger brothers and sisters."
Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
"Children under the age of three tend to put everything in their mouths," she added. "Toys for children under three should be bigger than a tennis ball and have no breakable parts. If you're not sure about the appropriateness of the toy's size, consider using the toilet paper tube test. Anything that can pass through the tube is too small to be given to a child under 3 years old.
"Children at this age pull, prod and twist toys. Check toys to see if they are well-made with tightly secured eyes, noses and other parts. Make sure surface decorations will not come off and that the stuffing is not going to come out. Be especially careful of items that contain small magnets. Building sets, action figures, dolls and jewelry are examples of products containing small, powerful magnets that can be fatal if swallowed by children.
"In addition, consider if the toy has a string, ribbon, straps or a cord longer than 7 inches and remove it to prevent strangulation," Dr. McNair stated. "Never hang toys with long strings, cords, or loops in cribs or playpens where children can become entangled. Crib gyms should be removed from the crib when the child can pull up on hands and knees."
Also avoid toys that have sharp edges and points, since they can cut or scratch. A CPSC regulation prohibits sharp points in articles intended for use by children under eight years of age.
"Lastly, safe gifts may be wrapped in not-so-safe packaging," Dr. McNair advised. "Make sure that wrapping paper, bows and plastic wrap are quickly disposed of after the gift has been opened. Never let children play with ribbon, strings or balloons because of the choking danger."
Children in this age group have different safety needs. "Try to provide a safety helmet for any gift of a bike, skateboard, or rollerblades in order to prevent head injuries," Dr. McNair said. "The addition of wrist guards to your gift of rollerblades or skateboards can prevent six out of seven fractures related to injuries from using this equipment.
"Avoid toys that shoot or include parts that fly off. Slingshots and even water guns are dangerous because they invite children to target other kids. If someone gives your child a toy gun or darts, make sure that the dart or arrow has soft tips or suction cups at the end, not hard points. Toy guns should be brightly colored so they cannot be mistaken for real weapons, and kids should be taught to never point darts, arrows, or guns at anyone. BB guns or pellet rifles should not be given to kids under the age of 16."
For Children of All Ages
Screen Time: Many children of all ages receive videos and video gaming devices during the holidays. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that total screen time be limited to 1-2 hours per day, for video viewing, TV and computer time combined.
"Excessive screen time is strongly associated with obesity," Dr. McNair cautioned. "Even Wii games promoting physical fitness are no substitute for getting outside and being active. Violent behavior in children is also associated with exposure to on-screen violence, as seen in videos and video games."
Electric toys and gaming devices should also be labeled UL, meaning they meet safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories. In addition, batteries that need to be charged should be supervised by adults. Chargers and adapters can pose thermal burn hazards to young children. And, don't remove home smoke detector batteries to power any toys.
"After the gifts are opened, it's important to make sure that children know how to use them properly," Dr. McNair concluded. "Actively supervise children when they are playing with any toy that has small balls and small parts, magnets, electrical or battery power, cords and strings, wheels or any other potential hazard. It's also important to teach children to put their toys away when they're finished, so they don't trip or fall on them, and so they are not tempting to younger children."
Toy boxes should also be checked for safety. Use a toy chest that has a lid that will stay open in any position to which it is raised, and will not fall unexpectedly on a child. For extra safety, watch for sharp edges that could cut and hinges that could pinch or squeeze.
"Finally, regularly check toys for breakage and potential hazards, including chipped or peeling paint. Damaged or dangerous toys should be repaired or thrown away. Lastly, steer clear of older toys, even hand-me-downs from friends and family. These toys might have sentimental value, but they may not meet current safety standards and may be so worn from play that they can break or become hazardous."
Karla McNair, M.D., is affiliated with Salem Community Hospital's active medical staff and the Salem Pediatric Care Center, 2020 East State Street, Suite C in Salem, 330-332-0084.