Is It Okay for Your Child to Eat Play Dough?

Child's hands kneading modelling clay
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Every toddler does it. You turn your head for a second and look back to find your toddler chomping on play dough. Is it safe? What should you do if it happens? 

It's normal for toddlers to explore everything with their mouths and play dough is no exception. While it's not meant to be a meal, most versions of play dough are nontoxic and not harmful in small quantities. Nonetheless, parents will want to learn the precautions to take and what to do if your child eats too much of it.

Commercial Play Doughs Are Nontoxic

The most popular commercial play dough brand—Hasbro Play-Doh—is non-toxic and has been since day one. Other brands such as Crayola Dough and RoseArt Fun Dough are also nontoxic.

Even though children's toys like play dough tend to be nontoxic across the board, it's important to read the product labels before offering something to your toddler. These will give you age recommendations and any warnings that you should be aware of.

Homemade Play Dough Is Only as Safe as Its Ingredients

Play dough is pretty easy to make. In fact, it's made with ingredients you probably already have. However, the safety of the play dough you make at home depends on the ingredients you use.

Many play dough recipes call for edible ingredients that you can find in your pantry, but just because it is technically edible doesn't mean it will become your child's favorite food. As the amount of salt and baking soda increases so does the unpalatability of the play dough. Your toddler might take a curious bite, but they'll probably spit it right back out.

Even if your child does swallow play dough, homemade or not, it shouldn't harm them. Chances are the taste will be so bad they won't want to try it again, either.

Make sure you discourage eating play dough in the future and offer your child water in case the salt makes them thirsty.

When You Should Be Concerned

In 2014, the United Kingdom's National Poisons Information Service (NPIS) issued a warning about the salt in homemade play dough. According to the BBC, the report stated that one gram of the average homemade play dough recipe contains 250 milligrams of salt. That is far higher than the amount of salt in commercial play doughs. 

The NPIS stated that a child would have to eat about 4 grams (0.14 ounces) of homemade play dough to feel any ill effects. The symptoms include vomiting, headaches, irritability, and listlessness. Because the toy is so salty, it's unlikely that children will eat that much and no cases were reported at the time of the warning.

In the unlikely event that your child swallows a large amount of play dough that contains salt, have them drink plenty of water and call poison control to be safe. Table salt can be hazardous. For a 28-pound toddler, just under half an ounce of salt consumption has the potential to be toxic.

For a play dough recipe that contains 1/4 cup of salt, be concerned if your child has eaten a quarter of the entire batch of play dough. That would be pretty hard to do given the taste and the fact that salt is spread out between at least a cup or more of flour and other ingredients. Still, it's something you should be aware of.

Also, you should consider any potential allergies. Before making play dough at home, make sure your toddler isn't allergic to any of the ingredients, such as wheat flour, powdered milk, peanut butter, or dyes.

Consider Edible Play Dough

If you're still worried about your child eating play dough, there are recipes for that are meant to be eaten. In the least, these are at least safe, even if consumed in large amounts. Give edible versions a try before moving on to other doughs.

Choking Hazards Are a Bigger Risk

The biggest safety concern of play dough is less about ingredient toxicity and more about the fact that it's a choking hazard. Play dough is labeled as appropriate for children 2 years old and up. However, you should provide constant supervision just in case your child makes a ball or pulls off a large chunk and places it in their mouth.

It is also a good idea to know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver in the case of a choking emergency.

If Your Toddler Won't Stop Eating Play Dough

Very rarely will a toddler enjoy eating play dough or make continued attempts to eat it. While it's not harmful, no parent wants to play dough to be a key component of their toddler's diet. In this case, prevention is the best way to make sure she doesn't eat it.

  • Don't offer play dough until your child is 2 years old and has outgrown the need to explore the world with her mouth.
  • Supervise your toddler constantly during play dough activities. If your attention is needed elsewhere, even for a moment, get the play dough out of your child's hands first.
  • Don't offer heavily fragranced play dough, like those made with Kool-Aid or peanut butter, until your child is old enough to understand that she shouldn't eat it. The tasty smell can make it too tempting.
  • If your child continues to eat play dough after taking the above precautions, don't offer it again until she is older.

A Word From Verywell

Even though play dough is seemingly harmless if your child eats a little bit, it's good to avoid the problem in the first place. It's also a good lesson in teaching kids what they can and cannot eat and will help you avoid any potentially serious side effects.

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  • Bradford E. Warning Over Home-Made Play Dough. BBC. 2014.