Between blocks and furry friends, potential playthings constantly surround your baby. While there’s no “right” way to play with toys—blocks can imitate anything from a tower to a toad, for instance—there are basic rules on how to keep your little one safe during playtime.

  • Wrap attack. Discard any plastic wrapping, plastic bags, packaging, or tags after purchasing a toy for your baby. Packaging can pose a suffocation risk; so make sure the trinket is wrap-free before handing it over during playtime.
  • Choking hazards. Anything small enough to fit in your baby’s mouth has the potential for danger. Watch for pieces that may become loose from a larger object, too, such as buttons, beads, caps and toy car tires. Make sure that no small parts can be pulled off or chewed off the toy, and be aware of toys that compress, such as foam balls. These toys often look too large for your baby to choke on, but if they compress small enough these can pose a serious risk.
  • Lead-free entertainment. Check the paint or finish on your little one’s toy to make sure it is non-toxic, since babies put everything in their mouths. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 requires toy-makers to test for hazardous materials, and label the packages to show when and where they were made.
  • Smooth sailing. Check toys for sharp points, rough edges, rust, and broken parts. There’s nothing scarier than turning your back for a second while your baby cuts herself on a sharp edge, yelps in pain, and needs a bandage or a trip to the hospital for stitches.
  • Age matters. Always abide by the age rating on the package. No matter how smart your child is or how wonderful the toy, don't second-guess the manufacturer, since age rankings often are given due to safety issues. If you choose to purchase a toy with an older age recommendation for your tiny genius, be sure that the toy’s used only when you’re playing with your baby, and that it is stored where your little one can’t get to it without your supervision.
  • Avoid accouterments in bed. Remove rattles, squeeze toys, teethers, stuffed animals, and other small playthings from the crib or bed when your baby goes down for naps or bedtime to reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation. The only exception here is a specialty made-for-baby toy that has been carefully created to be a safe sleeping lovey. Once your baby hits the toddler stage then soft, child-safe bed companions are fine.
  • Cord-free. Avoid pull toys with long cords that could wind around your baby’s neck or fingers. Pull toys for babies should have either very short strings or rigid handles.
  • Bits and pieces. Make sure toys are properly assembled, with no loose parts that can present a choking hazard. If you’re unsure if small bits are attached properly, keep the toy out of reach until you can get a second opinion.
  • Noise pollution. Babies tend to hold things close to their faces, so opt out of purchasing excessively loud toys—you want to protect your child’s sensitive ears.
  • Quality, quality, quality. Buy mobiles or crib toys from reputable manufacturers, and make sure that they attach to the crib without dangling strings. Remove mobiles and other crib toys once your baby can sit up.
  • Toy box safety. Your little one’s box of playthings should have a special safety lid (or no lid at all) to prevent it from slamming on your baby’s head or hands, or trapping her inside. Look out for hinges as well—they could pinch little fingers.
  • Hazardous materials. A simple balloon at the zoo never hurt anyone, right? Wrong. It’s never a good idea to hand over a balloon, Styrofoam, or plastic wrap as a toy to your baby. These objects present a serious choking hazard, since they can’t be expelled using the Heimlich maneuver.
  • Thrifty concerns. If a toy is second-hand (whether purchased from a second-hand store or garage sale, or given to you by a friend or relative), give all of the above rules extra consideration. If you have any doubts, always err on the side of safety and toss the toy. Don’t let your baby play with a paint-finished toy that appears to be older than a few years—the paint may be lead-based, which poses a poisoning risk to a baby who touches or mouths it.
  • No sibling sharing.< Your preschooler may be keen on playing with his baby sister, so it’s important that you keep toys (and parts of toys) designed for your older child out of your baby’s hands. She may like to play with toys belonging to big brother, but these are geared, safety-wise, to older kids and are not safe for little ones to use without very close supervision.

Playtime is essential for helping your baby develop motor skills, figure out how things work, and learn how to use his imagination and entertain himself, among other benefits. Follow the safety guidelines above, and you’ll rest easy knowing that your little learner will continue to grow and thrive with playthings that are educational—and safe.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.