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Q. Dear Umbra,

I am in search of a non-toxic ball for my 14-month-old daughter. Any ideas?

Drea T.
Falls Church, Va.

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Baby and ball

ShutterstockYou mean I’ve been playing with toxic crap this whole time?

A. Dearest Drea,

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Thanks to you, some dusty old lyrics have been bouncing through my head for several days: “The mornin’ sun is shining like a red rubber ball.” Those who don’t know this song should not investigate further. Trust me, it will worm its way into your brain and never, ever leave.

You don’t say what sort of ball you’re looking for, Drea — a small one for your toddler to hold and toss, a medium-size one that she can kick around, or an oversized one for hee-hee-it’s-bigger-than-me antics. Whichever your goal, I do know how challenging it can be to find products that are safe for the junior set. It is a cruel truth of our modern age that most toys contain toxic substances even though our children are especially vulnerable to such things. We know that young children, especially, tend to put everything in their mouths, yet we casually hand them items that can contain lead, mercury, BPA, and other things one would not normally choose to suck on. (Even toys intended for oral use, like plastic teethers, are often not suitable for that purpose — best to look for alternative materials.)

So I applaud you for making the effort to seek out safer toys, and I encourage you to keep at it, even when it feels harder than cutting a tooth. Support companies that offer healthy options, but just as important, tell the companies that do peddle toxic toys why you won’t be buying their products. We know the almighty dollar speaks, whether it is spent or unspent.

But here I am blathering away, and your 14-month-old is tugging at you with a repeated, “Ba? Ba? Ba?” So let’s get down to it:

  1. Avoid plastic. What you mostly want to avoid is vinyl, also known as PVC, and other plastics, which pose threats to our health and too often contain BPA. Have you considered good old-fashioned rubber? Rubber has benefits when it comes to durability and reuse, though it still might take a little digging to find a true rubber ball — as I explained to a dear reader looking for a non-toxic exercise ball a couple of years ago, vinyl sometimes masquerades as rubber. You might also think about balls made from felt or other fabrics. And what about unpainted wood? Your openness to this idea will depend on the number of breakables in your home and your toddler’s pitching arm, but for the right kid, this could be a good option. I don’t tend to recommend brands, but this might be a good starting point for you: a list of eco-friendly baby balls put together by another mother in your boat.
  1. Look in unexpected places. Like any reasonable person, you have probably been conducting your search in toy stores or on toy company websites. But I encourage you to think outside the ball. The pet industry, for instance, is full of owners who are as obsessive as human parents about the health of their charges; do a search for “non-toxic dog ball” and you might just find some surprising options. You could also poke around in craft stores, which often sell basic items — like, say, wooden balls! — that are free of toxic bells and whistles.
  1. Make your own. The best way to have complete control over your child’s toys, of course, is to make your own. This could be as elaborate or quick a project as you have the time for: try your hand at felting, sew some fabric scraps together, or crumple up some different materials from around the house (paper, tinfoil, clay) and have fun with your daughter exploring how they look, feel, and travel. Fun and science all in one!

Drea, I hope this helps some. As you’ve no doubt learned already as the parent of a young child, you cannot protect her from every possible harm. So do your best to give her alternatives, but don’t fret too much if she does get her chubby little hands on a plastic ball. Just enjoy playing with her. There is nothing so lovely, nor so fleeting, as the sheer, unbridled joy of a toddler.