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Buying Guide: Toys & Books

March 2015

Having the right toys and books on hand can not only make the job of entertaining your little one easier and more enjoyable — it can also be incredibly helpful in supporting your child's development. In this guide we'll share some buying advice and what to look for when buying entertainment for your little one.

CONTENTS:

Note: Our editors developed this list by summarizing TotScoop parent favorites and adding a few hand-picked editor favorites and new releases. Our picks are 100% unbiased — we never accept compensation in exchange for coverage. That said, this page may contain affiliate links, meaning we may receive a small commission on any purchases that you make (at no cost to you); see our full disclosure.

When you're done here, also see our picks for best best toys & books by age:

Buying advice

How many books and toys do I really need?

Your baby may well be perfectly satisfied playing with everyday household objects, such as keys and pots and pans (and, eventually, your smartphone). However, it can be convenient and helpful to have a thoughtful selection of dedicated toys and books on hand; they are custom designed to appeal to his senses, and will help him to target specific goals at each stage of development. If you're not on a super tight budget, it's nice to have a little more than the bare minimum, so you can rotate items in and out to keep things fresh and engaging.

Developmental stages

Here's a quick overview of the key developmental milestones that your baby will pass through in the first year or so, and the various types of toys and books that will be appropriate at each stage.

0-2 months

At the very beginning, it will be more than enough just for baby to practice focusing on your face. However, toward the end of this period, he may be ready to start engaging with some additional stimuli.  Around two months, baby will be able to focus on objects that you pass in front of his field of vision.  While his visual acuity is still developing and he remains unable to distinguish between similar colors, your best bet is to go with bold, black-and-white / high-contrast items that are most likely to hold his attention.

High-contrast items like this book, featuring colors like black, white, and red, are perfect for baby's first toys and books.

2-4 months

By two to three months, baby will begin staring quite intently at images and objects that he finds fascinating, and he'll be able to grasp objects that you put in his hands — grasping toys are great for this stage.  By three months, he'll enjoy batting at toys (e.g. dangling from an activity gym overhead). Babies start to work on distinguishing colors during this period, so it’s appropriate to introduce toys with bright, primary colors (red is the first color your baby will be able to see, followed by oranges, yellows, greens, and lastly blue).

A 3-month-old baby batting wildly at his beloved activity gym.

4-6 months

Your baby will be better at grabbing and holding objects, and also able to pick up larger objects, by this age.  Large blocks and soft objects with fun textures are a good choice.  Musical toys are also favorites. It’s also a good time to get an early start on reading with your baby.  Soft books (as opposed to board books) often provide a great introduction because they’re soft to the touch and often feature multiple textures to engage the senses.

6-9 months

By six to eight months most babies are sitting up; and by seven to nine months most babies are crawling. So it's time to put away the activity gym and toys to entertain and challenge your baby in these new positions!  Rolling toys (e.g. balls) will encourage your baby to get mobile.  Things that they can bang or otherwise engage with on while sitting up, like drums, will also be a big hit.  When it's quiet time, many babies of this age absolutely love touch and feel and "lift-the-flap" type books — their interactive nature will not only keep your little one engaged, but also help him to work on fine motor skills.

9-12 months

By nine months, many babies are pulling up to stand, and shortly thereafter they'll begin "cruising" (walking around with the support of furniture). You can help them out by getting a stable push toy/wagon to help them learn to walk. At some point your baby will also enter an "organizing" stage — where he'll start enjoying nesting/stacking cups, taking things in and out of containers, etc.  You can also introduce slightly smaller toys (e.g. medium-size stackable blocks) to help him start to refine his motor skills.  As far as books go, picture books with familiar images of everyday objects (foods, toys, etc.) will help him on his journey toward his first words.

1 year old

One-year-olds are very busy little people — exploring the world around them, learning to walk and develop other core motor skills, and working on building both receptive and expressive language skills. Favorite toys to support motor skill development include push/pull toys and simple ride-on toys. When it's time to sit down and play, simple building blocks and toys, stacking/nesting and sorting toys, and music and sound toys are favorites. Over the course of the year your child will be able to start engaging with puzzles, starting with jumbo knob puzzles and chunky puzzles (where the pieces can be grasped in the palm), and perhaps even progressing to peg puzzles (where the pieces are lifted using pegs between thumb and forefinger, requiring development of fine motor skills) and simple (2-4 piece) multi-piece puzzles. Sturdy board books with lots of pictures demonstrating simple concepts (e.g. everyday objects, colors, numbers) are also key to supporting your child's blossoming language skills.

2 years old

Two year olds are simply a blast to play with. At this age, many of them will start showing interest in real building toys and train sets. They're likely to start figuring out more complex puzzles at this stage, and may be ready for peg puzzles (which require development of the pincer grip) and/or simple multi-piece jigsaw puzzles this year. Pretend play will open up whole new worlds: for example, play kitchens and food, vehicles, dolls, and so on. As toddlers who are becoming increasingly confident in their physical play, two year olds often can't get enough of ride-on toys; some more advanced two-year-olds may even be ready for a balance bike. Art supplies such as crayons and finger paints are great for promoting fine motor skill development and artistic expression. For quiet time, your little one will still love picture books, but will be able to start enjoying slightly more complex storylines. Rhyming text and humor are sure to be favorites at this age.

Best places to buy

Many popular baby toys — and practically any baby book you can conceive of — are available at very competitive prices on Amazon.com. Diapers.com (and affiliated site Yoyo.com) also offers a nice, curated selection of great toys. For higher-end toy brands, you may need to visit more niche retailers (either online or offline). Your local bookstore will probably stock only the most popular titles, but nothing beats being able to view and sample a book in person.

Given that almost every parent buys too many baby toys, and they're only used for a short period of time, it should be no surprise that it's easy to score lightly used items at significant discounts. Check your local mother's group or baby consignment shop. For hygiene reasons, consider only purchasing used items that can be easily washed or sterilized.

What to look for

Performance

  • Child appeal: The fanciest toy in the world won't be much use if it doesn't hold your child's interest! Bright colors, interesting textures, and music are like crack for younger babies.
  • Educational/developmental value: Of course it's natural to want your baby to be consistently engaged and challenged, but try to resist the urge to get things more than a stage ahead. If you present your baby with toys far too advanced for his stage of development, you'll likely just be disappointed when he shows to interest!
  • Materials: For toys, are you OK with plastic, or do you prefer wood? Wood toys can be higher-quality, more durable, and arguably more attractive — and sometimes safer trigger fewer safety concerns — however they are almost invariably more expensive.
  • Sustainable manufacturing: Toys created from renewable resources (e.g. recycled plastic) and manufacturing with no harmful by-products (e.g. chemicals) have less negative impact on the environment.
  • Ease of cleaning: Don't make the mistake of overlooking this, especially if you're getting something that will be used by multiple children. Hard, non-porous toys are easier to clean and disinfect than soft toys.  If you are going to buy a fabric toy, look for something machine washable and dryable, unless you're ready to throw it out when it gets dirty or germy.

Safety

  • Choking and strangulation hazards: Keep small objects away from babies who are still in the habit of mouthing their toys; a good rule of thumb is that anything small enough to fit inside a toilet paper tube poses a choking hazard. Make sure there are no small components (e.g. stuffed animal eyes or noses) that baby might be able to pull or chew off. Also beware long strings and cords, which pose strangulation hazards.
  • Safer plastics: When evaluating plastic toys, avoid products made of or containing the following:
    • PVC/vinyl (#3 plastic), which can retain trace amounts of chlorine-related carcinogens (e.g. vinyl chloride, dioxin) from the manufacturing process, and often also incorporate phthalates (see below), lead, cadmium, and/or organotins as softening or stabilizing agents.
    • Phthalate plasticizers, which are endocrine disruptors that can also cause cancer, thyroid, and kidney disease. Be especially wary of soft plastic toys like bath toys, squeeze toys, and dolls, which are more likely to contain phthalates. (Note that federal regulations effective as of January 2012 require toys to meet or exceed a phthalate limit of 0.1%. So in theory, all toys manufactured after this date can be considered "safer." However, beware hand-me-down or secondhand toys that were manufactured before regulations went into effect.)
    • Also be wary of #7 ("other") plastics, into which category polycarbonates fall; these may contain BPA or its cousin BPS, both endocrine disruptors. Unfortunately, federal law does yet not regulate use of BPA in toys (only feeding products), but given the regularity with which babies mouth their toys, our view is that these should also be avoided. (Note that if your baby has outgrown the mouthing phase, this is not as pressing a concern, as BPA has only proven to be dangerous when ingested.)
    • In summary, when you are evaluating plastics, plastics #2, 4, and 5 are considered safer choices; look specifically for toys labeled PVC-free, phthalate-free, and/or BPA-free (you can also write to the manufacturer if unsure). If you have concerns about about a particular toy, the HealthyStuff.org database includes independent XRF testing results for chlorine (note however that much of the data unfortunately dates back to 2008, so may not be current). Another popular alternative is to avoid plastic toys altogether and instead buy toys made of other materials such as wood. For more info on safer plastics, see HealthyChild.org.
      Look for toys made from safer plastics — look for #2, 4, and 5 recycling codes, and look specifically for toys labeled PVC, phthalate, and BPA free.
  • Non-toxic paints and glues: For painted toys — look for solvent-free, "water-based paint" to make sure you are avoiding paint containing lead. Also look for non-formaldehyde-based glues.
  • Lead and heavy metals: Heavy metals (e.g. lead, antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and selenium) pose a risk to your child if ingested (or possibly even inhaled, for example if burned or present in dust), even in tiny amounts.
    • The CPSC started regulating lead limits in 2008, following a number of recalls that rocked the toy industry. At that time, an independent study by HealthyStuff.org detected lead in 20% of the toys tested.
    • The current lead limit of 100ppm has been in place since August 2011. Toy safety standards also expanded to include the other heavy metals listed above in June 2012.
    • Therefore, all toys sold in the US manufactured after June 2012 should theoretically meet current federal safety standards. However, older toys (such as hand-me-downs and secondhand toys) should be heavily scrutinized, and are probably best avoided.
    • If you have a particular toy that you're particularly fond of, you can consult HealthyStuff.org to see if it was tested in their 2008 study; note however that most of their toys tested were manufactured prior to the current regulations coming into effect, and as such they should not necessarily be considered representative of more recent models sold on the market today.
  • Bromine and flame retardants: Hard plastic toys and toys containing foam may contain brominated flame retardants including PBDEs, DBDPE, BTBPE, and PBBs. To our knowledge there are no federal safety regulations governing use of flame retardants in baby toys. The HealthyStuff.org database includes independent XRF testing results for bromine (though, again, much of the data unfortunately dates back to 2008).
  • Manufacturing location: Some parents prefer to play it safe and buy toys manufactured in Europe or the USA rather than China. Here's our take:
    • Approximately 80% of toys sold in the US are manufactured in China. These toys are also subject to the federal safety regulations described above (and are required to undergo testing to ensure compliance), however some people doubt that quality control and testing successfully cover 100% of products produced, and therefore prefer to avoid them entirely.
    • Our own take is that a brand's stated safety standards and quality control processes — and of course, the credibility of those claims — is far more important than their products' country of origin. We believe that some manufacturers are able to successfully exert their standards on foreign manufacturers via regular inspections and rigorous testing.
    • Incidentally, we also believe that things aren't necessarily safe just because they are manufactured in the US or Europe. Consider that HealthyStuff.org's 2008 study detected lead in a sizable percentage of toys manufactured not just in China, but also in the US as well.
    • Ultimately, of course, it is your decision whether you want to prioritize buying toys manufactured in the US or Europe. Just be prepared to pay a healthy price premium for them!

Favorite brands and authors

Here is an overview of some of the most popular baby toy brands and book authors, by subcategory.

Premium toys (wooden, non-toxic, and/or sustainably manufactured)

  • HABA: This German company makes wonderful wooden and soft toys that are excellent quality and don't feature any lights or sounds — just wonderful shapes, colors, and characters inspire the imagination.  HABA uses primarily maple and beech woods derived from sustainable forestry; its wooden toys are colored with non-toxic, water-based paints; and it holds several safety certifications. Most of their wooden toys are made in Germany, while their plush toys are manufactured in a wholly owned facility in China (to strict HABA quality controls).  
  • Plan Toys: Designed and manufactured in Thailand, Plan Toys are safe not only for your child, but for the planet as well. Their toys are made from rubberwood (a sustainable by-product of rubber production); are packaged in recycled and recyclable packaging and are printed with soy-based inks; are not chemically treated; are preservative, lead and formaldehyde-free; and incorporate only non-toxic (non-formaldehyde) glues and natural, water-based dyes.
  • Green Toys: This US-based company produces non-toxic, sustainably manufactured toys made from recycled food-grade plastic, such as milk containers. They are free of BPA and phthalates, are designed with no external coatings (to entirely bypass any concerns around toxic paints or sealants), and are sold in recycled packaging. Their fantastic range of toys includes vehicles, sorters and stackers, and cookware and dish sets. Green Toys are manufactured in California.
  • Janod: This French company offers classic, high-quality wooden toys and games that feature modern, distinctively French design. Their products are designed in France, and are primarily manufactured in China and Romania.
  • Hape Toys: Hape's wood and bamboo toys, also marketed under the brand name "Educo," feature clean, colorful design and are produced using renewable materials. They are manufactured in China.
  • Djeco: Based in Paris, Djeco produces high-quality toys, puzzles, and games, often featuring gorgeous whimsical illustrations. Their products are designed in France and are manufactured in China and (for some cardboard puzzles) the Netherlands.
  • Grimms Spiel & Holz: This German company makes simple, rustic, brightly colored wooden toys inspired by Waldorf principles, including clutching toys, stacking and nesting toys, puzzles, blocks, and push and pull toys. Their toys are primarily made from alder, lime, maple and cherry woods, and incorporate only natural oils and water-based dyes. They are made in Germany.
  • Wonderworld: Similar to Plan Toys, Wonderworld also produces toys out of rubberwood in Thailand. They use only non-toxic, water-based paints.
  • Camden Rose: Camden Rose produces toys that are made out of only all-natural materials, including wood, silk, wool and cotton, and are all certified non-toxic. Their wooden toys are minimalist, naturally colored, and derived from high quality woods such as cherry, maple and walnut. They are produced in the US and Peru, where they support two fair trade, non-profit organizations.
  • Maple Landmark Toys: Maple Landmark produces a wide range of wooden toys, including their very popular name trains, in a range of finishes. Their products are made in Vermont.
  • Under the Nile: This premium brand is known not only for organic clothing and textiles, but also GOTS-certified soft toys made from 100% Egyptian organic cotton fabrics and fillings. They are dyed with metal-free colors, and don't contain BPA, phthalates, lead, PVC, formaldehyde bue, toxic paints, or flame retardants. Under the Nile products are made in Egypt under fair trade conditions.
  • miYim: miYim's plush toys and loveys are made from organic cotton, with polyester stuffing derived from recycled PET bottles (reducing the plastic going into landfills), and utilize non-toxic dyes.
  • Etsy shops: There are also a number of wonderful shops featuring handmade wooden toys on Etsy. Some of our favorites are Little Sapling Toys, Imagination Kids, Smiling Tree Toys, Bannor Toys, Manzanita Kids, and Hill Country Woodcraft.

Other notable toy brands

  • Lamaze: Lamaze produces developmentally-focused soft toys and cloth books for ages 0 through 24 months. Their bright colors, sounds, and textures are like crack for babies! Their products do include synthetic fabrics, and all they will say on the safety front is that their toys meed or exceed all required safety regulations.
  • B Toys: B Toys, produced by Battat, are colorful and whimsical and inspire the imagination.   Most are made of plastic, but they are free of BPA, lead, and phthalates. They are packaged in recycled and recyclable packaging. They are designed in the US and made in China. A wide range of B Toys is sold at Target, and many products are also available on Amazon.
  • Melissa & Doug: Melissa & Doug is the 800-pound gorilla of the toy world, offering a stunningly large range of toys for babies, toddlers, and older children. They produce a lot of what we'd call "entry-level" premium/wooden toys; they're not plastic, but corners have been cut over the years and the quality today comes nowhere near that of the premium toy brands listed above (e.g. many products now made of MDF rather than solid wood) . That said, they are award-winning and offer much better value, given that they will likely be outgrown in a short period of time anyway. M&D toys are made in China, but according to the founders are subject to exacting quality standards.

Toys featuring modern design

  • Skip Hop: This modern baby products company makes not only diaper bags, nursery items, bath toys, and feeding accessories, but also toys including play mats, plush toys, and wooden toys. They offer several absolutely adorable coordinating lines, such as Giraffe Safari, Treetop Friends, and Alphabet Zoo.
  • Dwell Studio: This modern furniture, bedding, and home decor studio also offers a line of baby bedding, toys, and books.
  • Petit Collage: This modern wall decor and accessories line also offers a baby line, including nesting blocks, puzzles, mobiles, memory games, and books.

Favorite authors

  • Sandra Boynton: This popular cartoonist has produced a wonderful series of children's books — featuring fun farm animal characters, captivating rhymes, and fun illustrations — that are favorites with babies and parents alike.
  • Karen Katz: This children's author and illustrator is the undisputed queen of "lift-the-flap" books, including Where is Baby's Belly Button?.
  • Eric Carle: This famous creator of The Hungry Little Caterpillar has authored and illustrated lots of other wonderful books as well.  He also illustrated Bill Martin's wonderful Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? series.
  • Margaret Wise Brown: This children's author passed away over 45 years ago, but her stories — including Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny — live on as some of the most popular children's books of all time.  
  • Roger Priddy: This prolific artist and designer is the creator of over 200 highly visual children's books, including many "first words" type picture books (many co-branded with Bright Baby).
  • Dr. Seuss: Most of Dr Seuss's books are geared toward toddlers and young children, but his "Bright and Early" series is geared toward even younger readers.  It consists of his simplest books (with the fewest words and least complex storylines).  Most of the books in this series have both a full hardcover and an abbreviated board book version.