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How to buy the safest toys for babies and kids

With a bit of knowledge and common sense you can avoid dodgy products.

kids toy safety childrens blocks stacked up
Last updated: 09 December 2020

There's nothing quite like the look of delight on a child's face when they're given a new toy. And these days it seems like there are more toys to choose from than ever before. 

While most toys are safe, sadly there are still lots of toy-related injuries every year – and even some deaths.

Fortunately, with a bit of knowledge and common sense, it's not hard to avoid the dodgy toys.

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10 tips to choose safe toys

1. Read the labels

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. 

kids toy safety plastic film canisters

If a toy or its parts could fit wholly into a 35mm film canister, don't give it to a child under three.

2. Look for choking hazards

Choking and suffocation are the biggest toy-related hazards at this age. Small parts that can fit into a child's mouth and be swallowed can be extremely dangerous.

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. The ACCC provides a free guide for how to easily make your own Choke Check tool to see if a toy or detachable part is too small.

When buying toys for toddlers and infants, avoid:

  • very small toys that could fit into their mouth
  • 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).

Examine 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.

3. Are they 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.

4. Inspect 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.

kids toy safety young child chewing on blocks

Babies and toddlers are expert toy chewers, so choose items that are hard-wearing and easy to clean.

5. Does it contain magnets?

Small, powerful magnets 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, leading to infection and even death. 

A new mandatory standard for toys containing magnets was recently approved and will come into effect on 29 August 2021. Under the standard, manufacturers must ensure that hazardous magnets will not separate from a toy during play. It also limits the supply of toys with loose, small, high-powered magnets to scientific sets for children aged eight years and over and these sets must include a suitable warning label.

6. Check for batteries

Batteries are often used to product light and sound effects in toys. They can be found in many toys including plush toys, toy cars, digital pets, early learning watches, light-up yo-yos, games, novelty items and singing toys.

Make sure batteries are not accessible to small children; battery compartments should be secured with a screw or be otherwise inaccessible.

If swallowed, button batteries and magnets can be fatal

Button batteries in particular are a serious hazard if swallowed as they can lodge in the throat and cause severe burns or even death.

Notification: In December 2020, after years of campaigning by CHOICE and other organisations, the Australian government introduced mandatory safety standards for button batteries. This standard will help prevent children from gaining access to the batteries which, if swallowed, can be lethal. Manufacturers, suppliers and retailers have been given 18 months to comply with the new standards. 

7. Be wary of noises

Toys that make loud noises – particularly toys that are held against the ear, such as walkie-talkies and toy mobile phones – can be harmful to hearing (and to parents' sanity, perhaps!).

8. Watch out for trap hazards

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.

kids toy safety young child using floatation device

Inflatable rings should only be used under adult supervision.

9. Ensure swimming aids meet safety standards

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.

10. Does it fit your child's developmental needs?

Toys meant for older children can be totally inappropriate or even dangerous for younger children.

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. 

The standard tests simulate rough play by a child ("foreseeable abuse") and look for hazards such as accessible batteries, and small parts that come off too easily when twisted or pulled on or when the toy is dropped. Small parts are dangerous as they can choke a child. 

Every year they find many dangerous toys and retailers can face heavy fines for selling them

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 Consumer Affairs or Fair Trading, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), regularly conduct toy blitzes to check that toys on sale do meet the mandatory standards. Every year they find many dangerous toys and retailers can face heavy fines for selling them. 

Small retailers vs large toy stores

Our toy 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. Government regulators often find the same. 

Large toy stores and department stores generally have better compliance regimes and are much less likely to stock unsafe toys.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.