TUESDAY, Dec. 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- As the holiday shopping season ticks down to a final few days, many parents are scrambling to get their hands on the hot toys of 2006.
For some moms and dads eager to please, the Holy Grail is the Nintendo Wii, the market's newest video game console. For others, it's T.M.X. Elmo -- or Tickle Me Extreme Elmo -- the 10th anniversary edition of the popular doll. Or it might be Dora's Talking Cash Register, or Fisher-Price's Kid-Tough Digital Camera, or the Laugh & Learn Baby Grand Piano.
Whatever the toy, the questions are the same for every parent walking up to the cash register, package in hand: Is this toy safe for my child? Is it appropriate for my child's age? And how do I make sure my child doesn't get harmed playing with it?
"It's really about being a good consumer, knowing the hazards to look for, and never assuming that anything that makes it to the store shelf must be safe," said James Swartz, director of WATCH, or World Against Toys Causing Harm, a nonprofit group that releases an annual "10 worst toys" list. "It's about looking at toys with a critical eye and being informed about what to look for," he explained.
Twenty children under age 15 died due to toy-related injuries in 2005, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Another 152,400 suffered toy-related injuries.
"It must be noted that toys in this country are, for the most part, wildly safe," said Alan Korn, director of public policy and general counsel for Safe Kids Worldwide, a global network of organizations whose mission is to prevent accidental childhood injury.
"It is rare for a child to be injured or killed by a toy. That does not mean we throw caution to the wind, however," Korn continued. "You want to find the right toy for the right age child, always."
Of the 20 toy-related deaths, nine were due to choking or strangulation -- small rubber balls, balloons or game dice lodged in the throat, or the reins of a toy horse or a piece of swing-set equipment wrapping around the throat.
Experts warn parents to examine each toy for small parts, especially for children under 3 who still tend to put objects in their mouth. Parents also should check toys regularly for damage that could create small pieces, and either repair broken toys or throw them out.
The experts also warn against letting children play with toys that have strings, straps or cords longer than 7 inches, or allowing children under age 8 to blow up or play with latex balloons.
As far as injuries go, about 34 percent were associated with riding toys, more than any other category of toy. These include such things as bikes, skateboards, inline skates and unpowered scooters.
Korn recommended that anyone giving a riding toy to a child as a gift also include appropriate safety equipment, such as a helmet and knee and elbow pads. "They are not accessories, they are necessities," he said. "I wish they could package a helmet with every child's bicycle sold."
With video games, which are generally safe, the question becomes one of monitoring a child's play so overuse injuries don't occur, experts say. Repetitive-motion injuries affecting muscles and ligaments can happen through too much video gaming, as can eyestrain and other physical problems.
"They have to decide with their children what's best as far as how much video gaming is appropriate," Swartz said. "Video games are here to stay. The questions become, how much is OK, and what types are OK."
Korn said the best thing to do is to limit video game play to make sure the child is getting a variety of play experiences.
"You really want kids up and out and playing, even in winter," Korn said. "Video games can be great learning tools, if appropriately chosen. But you want kids to go out and use their imaginations and creativity."
Finally, Korn recommended that parents sign up at the Consumer Products Safety Commission Web site to receive regular e-mail alerts about toy recalls.
"It's important for parents to stay on top of recalls, so they can check their homes and day-care centers for these products," Korn said. He also recommended that parents always fill out the safety registration cards that come with some toys.
For more on toy safety, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission.