Sunday, May 22, 2005

Choosing Quality Toys: Stuffed Animals

If your household is like most, it won't be long after baby is born that you will feel like you are hosting an entire zoo filled with plush animals. It seems like everyone, especially other adults who either don't have kids or whose children are grown, think that your baby needs that cute stuffed zebra or dog or teddy bear or dinosaur that they found. For some reason, many people find plush toys to be completely irresistible, and they will purchase them for your baby. Chances are very good that you yourself will find a few of these cuddly toys that your child absolutely HAS to have, as well! No matter how they arrive at your house, first and foremost, you'll need to make sure that they are safe for your baby. Next, you'll want to deal with management issues, such as where to keep them and what to do with them. Finally, you will eventually need suggestions about how to clean them when needed.

Stuffed animal safety has to be your first priority. There are a surprising number of plush toys that do not meet even the most basic of safety standards for children! In addition, babies of different ages and stages have divergent needs when it comes to safety. Toys that are perfectly safe and wonderful for a kindergartener could be a fatal hazard for an infant.

One of the most common problems with stuffed animals is small parts that can be removed by a persistent youngster and turn into a choking hazard. For this reason, do not allow your baby access to any toy that has parts that are smaller than a quarter that can be removed. Check eyes, facial decorations, buttons, buckles, and the ends of tails, as these are common places for manufacturers to put these sorts of items. Make sure that ears, tails and other features are securely attached. Don't allow a tail to be long enough and flexible enough to wrap around any portion of the child's body (including fingers!). String-like tails can choke a little one if they become wrapped around the neck, or they can get tangled tightly enough around arms, legs, fingers, or toes to cut off circulation and damage the child's muscles and nerves.

It's also important to check the seams on the stuffed toy. Make sure there are no loose threads or areas where the seam is likely to pull apart. You don't want holes in these creatures, because the filling can come out. It can be a choking hazard itself, or at minimum, it can make quite a mess. Whatever fur should also be firmly attached. You should not be able to pull hair out of the animal, and it should not shed when handled. The dye used to color the animal also needs to be fast and unlikely to rub off on the skin.

Remember that plush animals of any sort should not be left in the crib or cradle with an infant. This is for the same reason that parents are advised to remove pillows and other soft items from the bed when baby is sleeping. Babies who cannot roll or lift their heads on their own can shove themselves up against the stuffed animal and smother. Be safe! Allow the baby access to the stuffed animal only when fully supervised by an adult. If the child cannot have your undivided attention right then, keep the stuffed animals out of reach. You might want to use them as decorative additions to the nursery or playroom while your baby is still little.

Stuffed animals can also be a potential allergy problem. They tend to collect dust and dust mites, and if your child (or you!) is allergic, the stuffed animals can cause a lot of discomfort and health problems. Many doctors recommend that whatever stuffed animals you keep around not be stored in the child's room or in or around the child's bed. If your child is showing signs of allergies, such as chronic runny or stuffy nose, frequent ear infections, many colds, or similar problems, you may want to consider getting rid of the stuffed animals or at least limiting contact with them.

Stuffed animals are such a common present that you will need to have a plan for what to do with them soon after your baby's birth. They can make nice decorations for the nursery or play room. You can perch them atop mirrors or other pieces of furniture where baby can see them but isn't at risk of smothering on them. You could keep a few of them in the playroom, or scatter them around parts of your house where the baby spends a lot of time. Do not plan to keep them in the bathroom, though, because the moisture and dampness will quickly cause problems.

Some families find the stuffed animal collection grows so quickly that they run out of places to store them. If this is the case for you, consider putting several of them aside in a closed box or bin and rotating them every few weeks. In this way, your baby will get a chance to enjoy all of the toys, and the variety will be stimulating and interesting. You can also use stuffed animals as puppets. Keep some in a box set aside for that purpose and use them to act out stories for your baby.

And don't forget to pop a few small ones into your diaper bag. Stuffed animals make a wonderful diversion for your baby when you are away from home. They are generally quiet, you can use them to "talk" to the baby, and your little one will enjoy seeing them just like old friends if you only get them out when you are on the road.

Stuffed toys are notoriously tough to clean. For this reason, I suggest that small children be given stuffed animals that are machine washable. For the most part, these are smooth rather than furry, but they sure do clean up much more easily. Many stores sell stuffed animals that are made of corduroy or similar materials that have a bit of a nap to them and feel pleasant to the touch, and these are best for the very young. Babies who are still spitting up or likely to drop the toys in the dirt especially need friends that can be popped into the washer.

Once your child has passed the point of being likely to spit up or wet on the toys, you can move to plush toys that are surface washable. This remains important long after your child leaves early infancy because many children still get into trouble when they are sick and are unable to control their bodily functions or clean up nasal discharge properly. I know it's gross, but it IS important!!

Only after your little one has matured beyond these points (generally late preschool through early elementary) is it safe to give them a traditional, non-washable stuffed buddy on a regular basis. And even these need the occasional cleaning. They get dusty if pushed aside for any length of time. One good way to clean a stuffed animal is to vacuum it! If you need to clean a stuffed toy when dealing with head lice (a surprisingly common problem in many areas), it can be sealed in an airtight container, such as a trash bag for at least two weeks. Stuffed toys that have an odor for whatever reason might improve if left in the sun for a day or two. Sunshine is a natural deodorizer and will help eliminate many kinds of smells, including mildew and smoke.

Stuffed animals are great fun and most children love them. They are intriguing to children of a wide range of ages and developmental stages. From infants who enjoy looking at them from a distance to young children who will use them as props in pretend games to older kids who adopt them as special friends, stuffed animals play a huge role in most children's lives. Take simple steps to make sure that your child stays safe around plush toys and that the toys you offer can be cleaned when needed. Enjoy!

No comments: