Do I want a toy or a bike? (and what's the difference?)
The differences are dramatic.
Nearly 100% of balance bikes are imported from the Far East. They are produced in a factory that is either in the business of producing bicycles, or in the business of producing toys. To enter the US market, these products must be tested for compliance with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, in one of two ways.
Here's the big secret that most balance bike producers don't want you to know: The balance bike you are considering is either categorized and tested as a toy, or it is categorized and tested as a bicycle. (Very few are tested for compliance with both standards, but the Scoot by Ridgeback is one example of this) The differences between toy testing and bike testing is pretty immense.
Toys are generally tested for the presence of heavy metals like lead and mercury, and other chemicals like phthalates, and for general finger pinching issues and choking hazards. If a portion of the toy can or will be "mouthed", it is tested for chemicals to make sure a child is not harmed by ingesting or inhaling certain chemicals. They are NOT tested to see if it can withstand 250-400 psi of stress, which is part of the bicycle testing protocol. Bicycles are tested every which way to make sure they are durable enough for the trauma that a bike must endure. The wheels need to be strong enough to withstand 100s of pounds of deflection without failure, the frame and fork are tested with 100s of pounds of force to make sure they stay connected under impact, the brakes are tested in a controlled manner to make sure stopping distance falls within a specified range. It goes on and on.. Needless to say, a balance bike tested as a bike is far more durable than a balance bike tested as a toy.
Even so, all of the balance bikes imported as toys are marketed with "safety features", that sometimes seem intended to mask the fact that they are not safety tested as bicycles, and would not pass any of the tests mandated for bicycles.
This is a personal decision that falls upon parents to make, but without knowing how a bike is tested, how can one decide? That's simple. Just call and ask.
If the retailer you are speaking with doesn't know the answer, perhaps a different retailer who has has done the proper amount of homework WILL know. Find them and buy with confidence.
Use this link to see some of the testing methods used for actual bicycles. The subject being tested is the Scoot by Ridgeback UK, which also happens to be tested for compliance with toy safety standards.