What motivates the 3 year old limit for toy safety?

To make it clear, I am not referring to the choking hazard itself. It is obvious that small parts present a danger and accidents can occur when small children play with toys intended for older children.

My question rather refers to what is behind the 3 year old limit. Is it motivated by biological / anatomical development, i.e., are > 3 year olds capable of coughing to get small bits unstuck from their throats? Or is it behaviour, i.e., 3 year olds can be trusted to not put small bits in ther mouths? Or something else? In other words, why does the standard say 3 years?

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    This is a personal opinion, not backed up by any formal evidence. I believe the motivation is a simple fear of lawsuits. If he toy is clearly labelled for 3 and over, but a younger child is given the toy and chokes, then the toy maker is not liable. – pojo-guy Aug 20 at 15:34
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    @pojo-huy: This would apply at any arbitrary age. My question is: why exactly 3 years old? Why not 4? Why not 2? – iulia Aug 20 at 16:46
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    I'm pretty sure pojo is correct. 3 Just may have been a statistical unit at the time of deciding to apply age suggestions to packaging. Ultimately, the goal is almost positively to limit liability in the age ranges notorious for putting things where they don't belong, as well as the age range when parents are most insane about their kids. When it comes to crap on labels, the only statistics that matter are the ones that cost the company money. – Kai Qing Aug 20 at 17:17
  • I will tell you my reason being a father of presently a 2 year old and a 3 year old right this instant. It appears age does play a factor in understanding what goes in the mouth vs what doesn't. Most recently my 2 year got a hold of some very small legos and started to choke the other day. Come to find out she had put these small lego "cupcakes" in her mouth and thank God we were able to get her to cough these out (she also vomited). My fault for letting them play together and not realizing the 3 year old gave up some of her legos to the 2 year old. The 3 year old never puts these in her. – JonH Aug 21 at 15:20
  • ...(continued) in her mouth. It seems the 3 year old has a clear understanding (even though she is only 1 year older than the 2 year old) what should or should not be put inside of a child's mouth. The 2 year old apparently does not know. We did not have to teach our 3 year old this either...she just knows. I assume that age difference and development is needed to understand the hazards. – JonH Aug 21 at 15:22
up vote 23 down vote accepted

In the USA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) sets these limits. In Which Toy for Which Child Ages Birth Through Five (only a PDF for download), the reasoning is explained.

In short, the reason (p. 3):

Young children explore objects in their environment by "mouthing" them. Children can choke to death on such items.

Then, for each age / category, abilities and interests and suitable toys are further explained. Most interesting to you may be "Older Toddlers (2 Year Olds)" on p. 19 and "Preschoolers 3, 4 and 5 Years" on p. 24 as this concerns the age restriction.

Preschoolers:

increasing finger control - can pick up small objects, cut on a line with scissors, hold pencil in adult grasp, string small beads (Most children in this age group can begin using toys with smaller components. If child is still mouthing objects, select toys without small parts.)

Based on this, it seems that the increase in finger control makes mouthing for children above age 3 typically unnecessary, while for children below that age, mouthing remains the preferred method of examinig small objects. If they are too small, they may choke on them.

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    Note that there is probably a large margin of safety built into these recommendations. The average child stops mouthing objects long before age 3; mouthing them after that age would be rare and maybe pathological. – TKK Aug 20 at 20:08
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    "Increasing finger control" in my 3 year old means sticking things like small beads up his nose! Not life-threatening luckily. – davidjwest Aug 21 at 13:49

While there are good reasons behind the toy safety standards, this comment by pojo-guy is also part of the truth:

I believe the motivation is a simple fear of lawsuits.

I have seen those "not for children under 3 years" warnings on books and other kinds of objects that do not seem to pose any particular choking hazard, and even when very similar toys are sold with a marking of 1+ years.

The reason is probably that the relevant toy standards have a lot more safety tests that have to be done for toys intended for children under 3 years. Quoting from EN71 which is the toy safety standard for EU market area:

Toys intended for children under 36 months shall in addition to relevant requirements of Clause 4 conform to the following requirements ...

a) Toys and removable components of toys shall not, whatever their position, fit entirely in the cylinder when tested according to 8.2 (small parts cylinder)

b) When tested according to 8.3 (torque test), 8.4.2.1 (tension test, general), 8.5 (drop test), 8.7 (impact test) and 8.8 (compression test), ...

...

The list continues up to g), and that is only the general requirements, with more requirements following for toys with soft filling, for toys with cords etc. The required tests are quite comprehensive and probably quite expensive if you buy it as a service from some certified testing company.

Compared to this, the requirements in "Clause 4" that apply to all toys, are mostly common sense and most of them do not have mandatory testing. So if you just put "over 3 years" label on the product, it is much easier to satisfy the requirements of the standard. Whereas if you want to legally sell a toy for children under 3 years in Europe, you usually need to perform a long series of tests.

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    Fascinating, but doesn't answer the question. Why three years old specifically. – AndyT Aug 21 at 14:15
  • Note: Books can very much be choking hazards or otherwise unsafe if they're mouthed, and then parts of the cardboard/paper come off and end up swallowed; book paper is generally non-toxic but not meant for consumption, after all, so safety standards for what's in normal, adult/older child books aren't up to the level of mouthing. – Joe Aug 21 at 15:19
  • @AndyT This answers the question from the toy manufacturers point of view - because the standards say 3 years. The standard could as well say 4 years, but it doesn't, so every product also has the limit at 3 years. – jpa Aug 21 at 15:37
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    @jpa - But why does the standard say 3 years? That's the whole thrust of this question. – AndyT Aug 21 at 15:50
  • @AndyT That apparent quote first appears on the page in your comment at this point. – Yakk Aug 21 at 18:04

Everything I read when investigating this said 3 is the average age by which babys stop mouthing.

https://www.babycentre.co.uk/x6721/why-does-my-baby-put-everything-in-her-mouth

By the time she's two years old, your child will use her fingers to explore most of the time. And by the age of three years, most children have stopped putting objects into their mouths.

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    It's not the average. Even your quote hints at this. This is typically the upper limit. Hence that's why the safety guidance is set there. – Tom.Bowen89 Aug 21 at 9:32
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    @WendyG I'd expect that even modal average is 2 yo, not 3 (assuming you're grouping by full years) – Dmitry Grigoryev Aug 21 at 11:36
  • @DmitryGrigoryev does my edit to my answer help. – WendyG Aug 21 at 13:24
  • @WendyG - No. See my (suggested) edit. – AndyT Aug 21 at 14:17

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