It’s a bit of a paradox: the more your child likes (or loves!) a particular toy, the more it is likely to be played with, and consequently, the grubbier it is likely to become.
And no one likes a grimy toy. Except your baby, who will happily pop the most disgustingly crusty teether into his mouth, because he hasn’t yet learned the germ theory of disease. He just knows that he loves that teether. So it’s up to us to keep things as clean as possible. But what’s the best way to go about it? How can you most effectively clean and sanitize your children’s toys?
The first order of business is to separate the toys by material. Things that are all plastic are perhaps the easiest of all to clean: simply wash them in a sink of hot water with a squirt or two of dishwashing liquid, just like you would do your dishes (you might want to use a clean dishcloth, to minimize germ transfer). Rinse them well with clear hot water.
The toys can then be soaked in a dilute bleach and water solution (1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 litre of water) for a few minutes. Used at this dilution, chlorine is considered to be a safe and effective germ-killer. Remove toys from the sanitizing soak and let them drain on a rack. Any chlorine left on the surface of the toy will just evaporate within minutes. It’s important that any solution that has got inside a toy be allowed to drain out; water that is allowed to sit inside a toy can become a festering puddle of goo — exactly what you’re trying to prevent, right? So, let the toys dry well before giving them back to the child.
If toys can’t be safely immersed in water (like those that have batteries, for example) you can surface wash with a wet, soapy cloth, rinse with a clean cloth wrung out in hot water, then wipe on the bleach solution (avoiding the battery compartment) and let it sit for a few minutes. Wipe dry with a clean cloth.
The same advice applies to wooden toys. They should never be left to soak in water, as this may cause any paint to peel or the wood itself to swell and splinter. Instead, clean the surfaces with a soapy water solution and a clean cloth, wipe with a clean cloth wrung out in hot water, then wipe once more with the bleach solution. Let dry.
Fabric toys can pose special problems. Those that are safe to launder are easy: just toss them into the washer. You might want to tie them securely into a lingerie bag, and use the same detergent or soap that you use for your child’s clothes (choose the gentle cycle on your washer, too). An extra rinse will make sure that all soap residue is gone. No need for a chlorine rinse here. Air drying, either on a rack, hanging on the line, or using the dryer’s no-heat setting, is usually the way to go. Again, you want to make sure that any stuffing is really dry so that it has no opportunity to get gross and moldy.
It’s the “surface-wash-only” fabric toys that can cause difficulty — and, as luck would have it, these are often the ones that need the cleaning the most! You may be able to clean them using the same techniques used with wooden toys (dabbing at the fabric with a wet cloth) but it’s pretty difficult to do any kind of sanitization. We really don’t recommend baby toys that can’t be thoroughly cleaned, so sometimes it’s just safer to toss dirty toys that really can’t be cleaned.
Finally, how often do toys need to be cleaned? Public health authorities recommend a scheduled cleaning — perhaps a thorough cleaning weekly, with spot cleaning as needed. Of course, if your child has been ill (or if you’ve had other children over for a play date) you might want to clean more frequently.