There's nothing quite like the look of delight in a child's face when they're given a new toy. These days it seems like there are more toys to choose from than ever before. Sadly, while most toys are safe, there are still lots of toy-related injuries every year – and even some deaths.
But aren't dangerous toys banned?
Yes they are, but you still can't assume every toy is safe.
Toys for kids up to the age of three years – including rattles, blocks, bath toys, dolls and more – must meet strict safety regulations. These are based on the Australian Standard for toy safety, AS/NZS ISO 8124, and focus on hazards such as small parts that could choke a child, sharp points and edges, and so on. There are also regulations to make sure painted toys don't contain toxic elements such as lead, and to make sure projectile toys are not too powerful or dangerous.
State departments of Fair Trading and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) sometimes conduct toy blitzes to check that toys on sale do meet the mandatory standards. Unfortunately, despite the regulations mentioned above, every year many dangerous toys are found and retailers can face heavy fines for selling them.
CHOICE tests have found that toys from small retailers, particularly cheap variety stores and market stalls, are more likely to fail tests, as these retailers are less aware of safety requirements. Large toy stores and department stores generally have better compliance regimes and are much less likely to stock unsafe toys.
How to choose safe toys
Fortunately, with a bit of knowledge – and common sense – it's not hard to avoid the dodgiest dollies and their kin.
Labels, or instructions on the packaging, should tell you:
- Age recommendations
- Assembly instructions (if appropriate)
- Proper use and supervision (if appropriate).
'Not suitable for children under three'
This is a safety warning, not an indication of skill level or intelligence. For example, it's illegal for a toy (and any detachable parts) intended for children under three to be so small that the toy could present a choking hazard. Choking and suffocation are the biggest toy-related hazards at this age. As a guide, if a toy or its parts could fit wholly into a 35mm film canister, don't give it to a child under three.
When buying for kids up to the age of three, avoid very small toys and toys with small components such as beads and buttons that could easily detach if pulled, squeezed or twisted, or when the toy is dropped (as it will be). Have a good look at the toy and imagine dropping it a few times onto a hard floor, or tugging at any small parts like buttons or sewn-on eyes. Do they look like they'd easily break off? Is the assembly flimsy and likely to crack or come apart? If so, choose something else.
Durable and washable
Babies and toddlers have a special knack for getting toys dirty, not to mention chewing on them too. Toys that are hard-wearing and easy to clean will last longer and be safer for the child.
Surfaces and edges
Make sure there are no:
- sharp edges
- sharp points
- rough surfaces, or
- small parts that could be bitten or break off.
If a sharp edge or point is essential to the function of the toy – for a toy sewing machine or toy scissors for example – make sure you show your child how to use it safely, and always supervise.
Also check there are no gaps or holes in a toy where a child could trap their fingers.
Small, powerful magnets (such as Buckyballs) are very dangerous if swallowed. If two or more such magnets are swallowed, the magnets can lock together through the intestinal walls and cause perforations and blockages. This can lead to infection and even death. Toys containing these must have a suitable warning label, and just as with other small choking hazards, the magnets should not come loose if the toy is dropped, pulled or twisted.
Batteries are common in many toys. Make sure they are not accessible to small children - battery compartments should be secured with a screw or be otherwise inaccessible. Small button batteries in particular are a hazard if swallowed as they can lodge in the throat and cause severe burns or even death.
Be wary of toys that make loud noises - particularly toys that are held against the ear, such as walkie talkies and toy mobile phones – as they can be harmful to hearing.
Toy chests and boxes should be designed not to trap or close on top of children, or better still, they should have a lightweight removable lid or no lid at all. Any toy box big enough to crawl inside must have ventilation holes. Also, make sure the lid shuts slowly and is fitted with rubber or other stoppers that allow a gap of 12mm or more when the lid is closed, so that small fingers can't be crushed, and to assist with ventilation.
If you're buying a toy that shoots projectiles, only choose ones that have a soft, one-piece dart or non removable suction caps, and make sure the tip or cap is large enough. The projectile mustn't be small enough to pose a choking hazard. Also, make sure that the firing mechanism can't be used to fire makeshift projectiles such as sharp pencils, stones or nails, and that the projectile can't hit hard enough to cause injury.
Check for adequate breathing and ventilation gaps if buying tents, masks or helmets.
Ensure that ride-on toys are stable and appropriate to the age of the child. Children's bikes [link to article] should have effective brakes which can be applied by the rider.
Swimming aids and flotation devices such as inflatable rings or armbands should be labelled as compliant with the Australian Standard AS 1900. Follow the instructions carefully; these devices should always be used only under adult supervision, and they aren't life-saving devices.
Think about whether the toy fits your child's developmental needs. Toys meant for older children can be totally inappropriate or even dangerous for younger children.