11/15/2010 11:56 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Happy and Safe Holiday Season: Tips on Toy Safety

Black Friday is weeks away but already many consumers are flocking to malls in search of the season's hottest toys. When you begin your holiday shopping, it's important to remember that even the most popular items could present hidden hazards for your little ones. 

Already this year we've seen a number of toys recalled for various reasons, but, sadly, in most cases this doesn't happen until after a tragedy occurs. While it's never something we want to believe, manufacturers often fail to properly warn consumers about potential hazards and even the most diligent of parents can simply overlook an unsuspecting hazard. Ultimately, it's up to parents to be prepared and thoroughly inspect products before giving them to our children.
So, when checking off your list, make sure to adhere to the following safety guidelines:

Make sure toys are age appropriate. This is first and foremost. This might sound obvious, but most injuries occur when parents give their children toys that are too advanced - what's perfectly safe for your 10-year old may pose a serious danger to your 4-year old. So pay attention to the age recommendations on the product packaging - this will help you choose toys that are safe and will hold your kid's interest. And be sure older kids keep intricate toys away from their younger siblings.

Avoid choking hazards. Swallowing small parts is the leading cause of toy-related injuries and deaths, particularly in kids under 3. As any parent knows, toddlers have a tendency to put anything and everything in their mouths, so it's important to steer clear of toys containing small pieces, especially marbles or balls that could potentially get lodged in a child's throat. Never let a young child play with deflated objects, like broken balloons, or any toys that can fit through a toilet paper roll, which is slightly larger than the size of a child's windpipe.

Be sure toys are well made. This is important because small children will often pull off pieces, like the eyes and nose on a stuffed animal, that are not securely fastened. Toys made of flimsy plastic can snap, leaving sharp jagged edges or small pieces that a child can choke on. Make sure to buy toys that are durable and immediately discard any broken toys in your home.
For small tots, avoid buying toys that contain magnets. They could detach and wind up in a child's mouth - if more than one is swallowed, they can attract to each other in the intestinal tract. This has been known to cause the intestines to twist, and can lead to bowel obstructions and intestinal perforations that could be fatal.

Beware of toxic substances. When most parents think of 'toxic toys' they think of lead paint, and with good reason. The effects of lead poisoning are well documented, and under current regulations, children's products with more than .6 percent lead are subject to a recall. But with lead banned from children's products, some Chinese manufacturers are using cadmium, an even more dangerous heavy metal that is not currently regulated in children's jewelry. Like lead, cadmium can delay brain development in young children and long-term exposure can cause kidney problems and cancer. To be safe, it is best to buy only kids' jewelry made in the U.S. with the metal content displayed. 

Be careful about excessively loud toys. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ATSM) has put out acoustic standards for handheld toys, but there are still toys on the shelves that are that do not comply and can cause hearing damage to young children. You don't have to measure the decibels of every noisy toy, just remember if it sounds too loud to you, it's probably too loud for your child.

Avoid certain "action" toys. There are certain toys that are just plain dangerous for kids of any age, and you'll know them when you see them because they typically resemble weapons and have parts that fly off. These toys, which include paintball guns, slingshots, and high-powered squirt guns can seriously injure kids who are targeted. Avoid buying these toys, and if you do purchase them, only allow children to use them under strict adult supervision. 
The holidays are a special time, especially for our children, and with a little precaution and forethought you can make it a happy and, most importantly, safe holiday season.