From their earliest weeks and months, babies are little learning machines. Toys can be appealing, but parents shouldn’t underestimate their own power to engage, educate and please, says Dr. Kathleen Smith, a John Muir Health pediatrician. “You will always be your child’s favorite toy. You're constantly doing new and interesting things.”

For playthings that you do purchase, safety is a key concern, says Smith. Look for toys that are well made and not likely to break or fall apart easily. For kids up to age 3, toy parts should be bigger than the baby’s mouth to avoid the possibility of choking. To minimize risks of strangulation, nix toys with strings longer than 7 inches.

A toy’s educational/entertainment value also depends on a baby’s developmental stage and temperament. Loud toys, for example, will delight some and terrify others. Consider your child’s temperament, try a few things you think he or she will like, and see what seems to be pleasing. Before making bigger purchases, it may be wise to first let your child give them a test run at a friend’s house.

Infants from birth to 3 months aren’t yet able to grasp objects but can appreciate things to listen to or look at. For visual stimulation at this age, look for objects with high-contrast patterns. (Smith says her own babies loved the black-and-white mobile hung over their changing table.)

Three- to 6-month-olds are increasingly able to use their hands and explore most objects by looking, shaking, banging and sucking on them. They also appreciate bright colors more as their eyes are maturing.

Play becomes a more vigorous undertaking at 6 to 9 months, thanks to a baby’s increased dexterity and mobility, says Smith. Infants this age can sit well and play with toys, and they often enjoy activity centers that have playthings or allow them to jump or spin.

By the time babies are 9 to 12 months old, they’re usually creeping, crawling or cruising, maybe even walking, and have better problem-solving and language skills. According to Smith, “They will love ransacking a special cupboard with safe Tupperware, cups and spoons. Any item that looks like something you use a lot is likely to be popular—keys, phone, etc.”

Smith’s closing advice: “Remember, the ‘recommended age’ sticker you find on most toys is only a starting point. Before you buy, make sure the plaything suits your particular child’s interests and abilities.”

What Was Used to Make Your Baby’s Toys?

Because some plastic or painted toys can contain chemicals of concern (such as lead, phthalates or bisphenol A), it’s a good idea to get rid of older soft plastic toys (which likely contain phthalates) and consider looking for a good resource for newer toys. FYI: The Michigan-based Ecology Center offers toxicity info on 8,300 toys. Visit then look for products with the lowest rankings to find the safest alternatives.

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