Fact: many parents are so worried about the possibility of their baby choking that they are reluctant to introduce lumps or finger foods into their baby’s diet. I should know – they've told me themselves.
It’s also a fact that babies and young children are more vulnerable to choking because they have a smaller windpipe (about the same diameter as a drinking straw). They are also more vulnerable because they are learning how to chew and swallow, and because they put everything in their mouths as a way of exploring the world around them.
I’ve witnessed choking episodes in children, both as a paramedic, and at times as an anxious parent, so I fully understand parents’ concerns. But perhaps the most important thing to know about choking is that it’s largely preventable.
Everyone has a gag reflex - that contraction you feel in your throat when you’re trying to swallow something unpleasant, is in fact a protective mechanism to prevent you from choking. In babies and young children this gag reflex is even more efficient, occurring further forward in their mouths, thereby protecting them when they are at their most vulnerable.
Because the gag reflex is so efficient in small children, it does mean your baby will gag a lot, especially in the weaning stage. Gagging is very different from choking however, and it’s important not to be alarmed by it. Most often a baby will gag and cough up the food, thereby removing the problem – so it’s best to avoid needlessly pounding them on the back at the first sign of discomfort.
Mealtimes for babies and young children should always be supervised – the best approach is to sit back and observe, and only intervene if they are struggling. For the gag reflex to work properly your child should be sitting upright and still – this is of course easier said than done as the toddler stage approaches!
Certain foods such as grapes, cherry tomatoes, apple skin, hot dogs, nuts and boiled sweets present a higher risk for choking. Make sure such foods are cut up to a suitable size if you are feeding them to your little one.
Similarly, various household objects are high risk, from pins, screws and coins, to button batteries, marbles and beads. Toys with small parts can also present problems for choking, so aim for age appropriate toys. It’s worth being aware of the presence of older kids’ toys with smaller parts in situations where children of mixed ages play together. Parents with children covering a wide age range are only too familiar with this particular challenge!
Attending a first aid class is always a good idea, and will give you the confidence to recognise and deal with a choking incident should one occur.
So supervise mealtimes, trust in the gag reflex, and clear up the Lego! All the steps described here will help to minimise choking hazards and ensure that eating and playing are enjoyable, not stressful experiences, for both your little one and you.