The holiday season is in full swing. But even if you're the proactive type who already has her presents bought, meal planned and cards mailed, it seems like there's always some last-minute shopping to do. Whether you forgot to get stocking stuffers, a small something for your niece or your best friend's new baby, everyone has scrambled for a last-minute present at some point.
In the mad dash to grab those final trinkets, it can be tempting to pick up a toy on the fly at convenient locations like the pharmacy, grocery or dollar store. But many of the small and inexpensive toys sold at these locations aren't the safest, so last-minute shoppers need to pick carefully.
"Generic, off-brand toys might be cheap and easy, but poorly made toys are anything but a good deal for kids," says Lois Lee, MD, attending physician in Boston Children's Hospital’s Emergency Department. "Many of these types of toys may have small parts that can break off easily, creating a choking hazard or may contain potentially toxic substances in the paint or plastic."
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates many, but not all, toys sold in the U.S.; it's common for off-brand toys to fly under the Commission's radar. Unregulated toys are at a greater risk of containing choking hazards, unsafe chemicals or to not adequately identify the appropriate age for the toy's user. (Remember, even a safe, well-made toy for an 8-year-old can be dangerous in the hands of a toddler—like magnet building toys, for instance.)
"Age recommendations are more than a friendly reminder, they're safety warnings that should be adhered to, like you would have with household cleaners or electric appliances" Lee says. "Many toys have hidden, potential hazards that you may not notice until it's too late. When buying toys, look for age recommendations and follow them. If there are no recommendations available or you are not sure if it’s safe for your child, it's probably not worth the risk."
Toys not approved by the CPSC have a greater risk of being made with potentially dangerous chemicals like cadmium and/or lead. Exposure to these elements can affect many organs in a person's body and may be especially toxic to young, still-developing brains.
"Lead and chemical containment aren't just an issue in generic toys, as it happens with known brands too, but a lack of regulation with some generic brands should be a red flag for all consumers," Lee says.
It's also a good idea to avoid any last-minute toy with magnets in them. When swallowed, magnets can reconnect inside the intestines and cause serious, sometimes life threatening injury, making even regulated magnet toys a risk for kids. But if a toy with a magnet component is poorly made, it only increases the chances the magnet can come loose and end up in a child's mouth and stomach.
So what options are safe for the zero-hour shopper on a budget? Packaged food treats with well-marked expiration dates are a quick option that's likely to satisfy a child of any age. Also, children's story books and coloring books are available in many places outside of bookstores, often with their intended age printed right on the cover.
And, remember, just because an item isn't marketed as a toy doesn't mean children can't have fun with them.
"If you're buying a last-minute gift on fly and you're wary about the available selection, office or school supplies are a pretty good option," Lee says. "Markers, colored pencils, crayons, note books, glue sticks and colored paper make great gifts for toddlers and school-age kids. They're less likely than a cheaply made toy to have breakable, swallowable parts, and they stimulate the child's creativity, which is always a good thing."