How to have a safe visit from the Easter Bunny:

Pretty pastel candies in children's Easter baskets are often loaded with artificial additives that can harm children, says Jane Hersey, national director of the nonprofit Feingold Association, which helps special-needs children.

The dyes have been linked to several health problems in children, including hyperactivity and inattention, she says.

"If you notice that your children act up after eating brightly colored candies, synthetic dyes are the most likely culprit," said Hersey, a former teacher whose daughter has been affected by food additives.

The Food and Drug Administration planned a public hearing about the effects of synthetic food dyes on children's behavior and attention for the end of March. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, trying a preservative-free, food coloring-free diet is a reasonable intervention for hyperactive children.

Hersey says natural candies are listed in the Feingold Association's Foodlist & Shopping Guide and Mail Order Guide on the its website at She recommends these tips for Easter baskets:

--Avoid buying Easter candies containing synthetic food dyes, such as Red 40, Yellow 5 and Blue 1, artificial flavorings and some preservatives.

--Add 100 percent fruit roll-ups or homemade trail mix to the basket.

--Include educational toys, books, art supplies or disposable cameras in the basket.

--Tuck a coupon from the Easter Bunny, good for an outing to a theater or amusement park.

--Consider using brightly colored plastic Easter eggs or coloring your boiled eggs with natural dyes.

--Feed your children breakfast before letting them indulge in Easter sweets.

--Put a stuffed animal, such as a bunny or chick, in the basket to help take the emphasis off sweets.

While it might be tempting to put a real bunny in your child's basket, you need to know the commitment you're getting into, says Marie Mead, creator of and author of "Rabbits: Gentle Hearts, Valiant Spirits" (Nova Maris Press, 2011, $18.95).

"Baby bunnies are a terrible impulse purchase," she says. "A rabbit can be easily injured or disabled due to improper handling." Also, discarded bunnies overrun animal shelters after the holiday, and many are euthanized.

"Before getting a rabbit, it's essential to become educated about the animal's nature and needs," she says.

Parents need to model respect and care for animal companions, she says. While rabbits can make wonderful companions, Mead's mission is to help potential pet "parents" know what to expect before adoption or purchase. For starters, you're looking at a commitment of eight to 12 years.

Other guidelines:

--Responsibility begins before choosing a pet. From the start, do thorough research, including diet, behavior, bunny-proofing, and proximity to an appropriate vet.

--Rabbits and small children are generally a mismatch. Because rabbits look so kid-sized, it is often assumed that children and bunnies will be a good combination. This is not the reality. Even gentle kids can hug a rabbit too hard.

--Most rabbits go through a personality change. Baby bunnies are definitely adorable, but when they enter adolescence at about 3 to 4 months, the once-amiable creatures begin to display a strong will, a desire for independence, and an inborn need to chew and dig.

--It's important to read the signs. Rabbits may sometimes express their fears and dislikes by nipping or biting. In addition, those who are not neutered may become grouchy or aggressive.

--Pet care requires chores. Children, especially, tend to lose interest after the novelty of having a new pet wears off, and their follow-through on chores often breaks down.

--Bunny-proofing is a necessity. Rabbits present some challenges due to their natural instincts for chewing and digging. Bunny-proofing is a necessity to avoid damage to personal property and to prevent injury or death to the rabbit.

Easter egg tip

Use approved egg dyes only. Hard-boiled eggs that have gone unrefrigerated for more than two hours or are cracked can pose serious health hazards to children and adults if they are eaten.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and teaches preschool. Reach her at