- Choking (object in airway): Partial or complete obstruction of the airway can be due to a foreign body (e.g., food, a bead, toy, etc.)
- Gagging: To experience a regurgitative spasm in the throat, as from revulsion to a food or smell or in reflexive response to anintroduced object.
- Gag Reflex: The gag reflex, also known as the pharyngeal reflex or laryngeal spasm, is a contraction of the back of the throat triggered by an object touching the roof of your mouth, the back of your tongue, the area around your tonsils, or the back of your throat. The reflex helps prevent choking, as well as helping to moderate the transition from liquid to solid foods during infancy.
Lots of people have asked me about gagging and choking so I wanted to give a few pointers that have helped us in the last three months. As always, I don’t claim to be an expert or medical authority, but I give this as our “first-time-parents” perspective!
Firstly, from the definitions above, remember that gagging and choking are different. Choking is actually having an obstructed airway which in three months, Clayton has done maybe once. (I think though that I was scared and jumped in when he would have been fine – I’m better at reading him now.)
Gagging on the other hand, is a natural and protective reflex, and we get that from him all the time. All the time. It can look scary, and it’s made family members jump up or get scared, (and us too) but we’ve been helped by knowing that it’s a very natural, protective reflex. As babies learn to move foods around their mouths they will gag. It’s just part of the process. They learn to walk, they fall down; they learn to eat, they gag. Some babies are more prone to gagging than others too, so know your baby and work with it however you need! Choking on food is not as common as I thought it might be, and the most common cause is not even food but latex balloons. So don’t let food make you overly nervous and hinder the joys of family meal time. There’s a lot of information out there on gagging vs choking so do your research but I’ve jotted down 10 things that have helped us on the journey, to have fun, feel safe, and stay calm and happy at meals!
- Take a first aid course and learn what to do so you are safe! Start off on the right foot, know how to keep your baby safe, and you’ll be a lot more calm knowing that if something was to happen you’d know what to do. (I say everything else assuming you have this safe guard!)
- Know and avoid the more dangerous foods Avoid the common choking hazards like whole grapes, round hot dog slices, whole nuts, nut butter (unless spread thinly), bread (un-toasted it can form a sticky ball), hard candy/boiled sweets, and a few more. Read the top ones HERE.
- Wait till 6 months to feed solids, and till they can sit up properly, and are actually interested in food. This avoids them being slouched down in the chair and not being developmentally ready to eat.
- Feeding at the table helps keep concentration on eating well. We pretty much only feed at the table and only set Clayton in his chair to eat, not for other activities. I think this helps an association with it being time to eat and he’s more focused on that, and is less likely to get distracted and stop chewing/eating his food well.
- Be present at the meal and engage with your baby. For the same reasons as #4 we don’t do screens or toys at the table, and we periodically show in an exaggerated way that we are eating too, to remind him what he’s doing – especially if he has trouble with a mouthful.
- Feeding large finger food pieces allows them to slowly suck/gum/bite off tiny bits that aren’t a hazard. Small cut pieces might seem more logical but they can be more easy to inhale and move straight to the back of the mouth.
- Fruit/veggie skin. We’ve found that sometimes soft skins like peach/plum can get stuck in their throats and cause extra gagging, so I suggest either removing them, or watching how your baby does and then taking them off as needed.
- Stay calm, don’t jump in. Disclaimer: **I say this with caution, and assuming you have taken a first aid course and can use common sense and wisdom! But: we take care not to jump in too quickly as Clayton’s learning to move food around his mouth – even when he struggles (gags). I think it’s important for him to figure it out and learn that he can gag and he’ll be ok. Gagging doesn’t phase him now, we tell him he’s doing well, offer him water and he just delves right back in. If they are making noise and still breathing, they’re not choking, they’re just learning to manage food.
- Learning to chew. I’ve read that when babies are not started solely on purees but allowed finger foods instead, they actually get to learn the importance of chewing gumming food. Chewing always comes before swallowing if you have finger foods but when babies are fed solely purees, they learn to swallow before they learn the skill of manipulating their food. So don’t be afraid to feed finger foods – to me I like the logic of the order of learning chewing and swallowing skills this way. (You can only feed finger foods once they have the motor skills for that, hence our waiting until 6 months so start solids at all.)
- Do what’s right for you! If you’re still nervous, pick foods that are extra safe to you. If you’re feeling uptight and nervous, a meal time won’t be fun and food is meant to be enjoyed! So do what you need to do to be calm. Things like steamed or baked sweet potato wedges, steamed broccoli florets and easily ‘disintegrate-able’ pancakes have caused us less gagging, but find what works for you! And if you need to go to purees (just be aware that they can still cause gagging, as it’s a natural reflex) to feel safe, do it and please don’t feel like it’s less good! You’re still feeding great nutritious food to your baby and that’s what matters most!
**A disclaimer: As with everything I write, this post is a combination of my own personal research and opinion, please use common sense, do your own research and consult your physician, before choosing the way you feed yourself and your baby**