Things to avoid when choosing a toy

•Balloons
•Heavy toys
•Strings/cords longer than 12"
•Button batteries
•Small magnets
•Toxic materials/plastics

All sorts of gadgets, games and action figures have hit the store shelves, and youngsters can hardly wait to see what lands under the tree on Christmas morning. In all this excitement, it's important to stop and think about toy safety. The following are safeguards to consider while purchasing products and providing supervision of play activities:

Pick age-appropriate toys. Most show a "recommended age" sticker, which can be used as a starting point in the selection process. Be realistic about your child's abilities and maturity level when choosing an age-appropriate toy. Playthings that have projectiles, for example, are never suitable for a child under age 4 - and even some 6-year-olds aren't mature enough to handle them. Likewise, if a 3-year-old still puts everything into his or her mouth, wait a little longer to give that youngster toys and games with small parts and pieces.

Choose toys that are well-made. Used ones passed down from older relatives or siblings or bought at yard sales can be worn or frayed, which can sometimes be dangerous. Check all toys -- new or used -- for buttons, batteries, yarn, ribbons, eyes, beads, and plastic parts that could easily be chewed or snapped off. Make sure a stuffed animal's tail is securely sewn on and the seams of the body are reinforced. Parts on any toy should be securely attached. Make sure there are no sharp edges and the paint is not peeling.

Think big. Until children turn 3, toy parts should be bigger than their mouth to prevent the possibility of choking. To determine whether it poses a choking risk, try fitting it through a toilet paper roll. If a toy or part of it can fit inside the cylinder, it's not safe.

Make sure a child is physically ready for the toy. For example, parents of older kids may buy a bike one size too big so as not to have to buy a new one next year. This tactic can lead to serious injury if a child doesn't have the physical skills to control the bigger bike.

Skip the balloons. They may be cheerful party decorations and fun to bounce around, but latex material the main cause of toy-related choking fatalities in children. When ingested, uninflated balloons (or pieces of burst ones) can form a tight seal in a child's airway and make it impossible for him to breathe.

Don't pick heavy toys. Could your child be harmed if it fell on him or her?

If so, pass.

Don't pick toys with a string or cord longer than 12 inches. A cord can easily wrap around a young child's neck, causing strangulation. Once children can climb up on their hands and knees, remove crib gyms and hanging mobiles. Be particularly vigilant about older toys. For example, an older model of a popular play kitchen may have a phone attached with a potentially deadly cord, while the latest model of the same kitchen has the more current and safer cordless phone.

Avoid toys with small magnets. The Consumer Product Safety Commission calls them a hidden home hazard. Small, powerful magnets are often used in toys, and they may fall and be swallowed. Two or more swallowed magnets (or a magnet and a metal object) can be attracted to each other through intestinal walls, twisting and pinching the intestines and causing holes, blockages, infection, or worse if not discovered and treated promptly.

Watch out for toxic toys. Even when parents find one that seems safe, they'll want to be sure it's not made with chemicals that can harm their child. Phthalates, or "plasticizers," are used to make plastic more flexible and durable, and these chemicals are found in many toys. Cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic are other chemicals in everything from dolls and action figures to children's jewelry and stuffed animals.

Another rising concern is button batteries -- the most potentially harmful type for young children. These are the round, small-sized batteries often used to power watches, hearing aids and other miniature devices. They are easy to swallow and can get stuck in the esophagus, leading to serious injury or death.

Proper supervision of children at play is still -- and always will be -- the best way to protect them from toy-related injuries.

See more holiday safety tips from the American Association of Pediatrics here.

Protecting children from unsafe toys is the responsibility of parents and guardians. The CPSC provides free safety alerts, guides, posters, brochures, handbooks and other materials that can be used to help educate and spread consumer product safety information. For details, visit www.cpsc.gov.