What to do if a child is choking

Adults don’t generally think of eating as a scary activity, but for babies just getting the hang of solid foods, the mechanics of chewing and swallowing can carry unexpected complications, including choking. Here’s what to do about it.

Choking vs. gagging

Gagging can be scary to watch, but it’s actually a helpful reflex in that it pushes pieces of food that are too big away from the airway before they cause choking, though the retching motion of it looks dramatic and unpleasant. The gagging reflex changes with age, and in babies it’s much further forward than it is in adults. When babies gag, they generally move the food that’s causing the gagging forward with the motion it makes on their own. Choking happens when a baby’s airway is either partially or totally blocked. When this happens, babies start to cough to try to dislodge the object blocking the airway.

What not to do when a baby chokes

If a child is choking, using a finger to try to scoop out the object is often thought to be a bad idea because while it can work, it can also push the obstruction even further back in the throat. The same thing is true about patting or hitting a child on the back from where they’re sitting up – it can move the obstruction, but the movement may just send it deeper.

What to do instead

The first thing to do when a baby starts coughing is to figure out if they’re getting any air around the object, or if the airway is totally blocked. Children who are crying out are generally getting some air. Children who are turning blue are not. If a child’s airway is completely blocked, or you’re concerned they may not be getting enough air, the first thing to do is call 911 or the emergency services number for your area.

You can help dislodge an airway obstruction in a baby’s throat by holding the baby on their stomach over your arm, with their head lower than their chest, so that gravity is working with you to get the obstruction out of the baby’s mouth, and thumping them firmly between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand. If you’ve already called emergency services, this is still the right thing to do while you wait for them to arrive.

If you’re still unsuccessful dislodging the object, try putting them on their back, resting on your thigh. Perform five chest thrusts, much like you would in CPR. Alternate between these chest thrusts and back thumps until the object is freed, or emergency services arrives. Choking is a very scary experience, so it’s easier said than done to try to remain calm. However, avoiding panic will help you perform the most effective first-aid possible, so it’s good to be prepared for a situation like this.

Common choking hazards

The best way to deal with choking is to avoid it, and certain foods are generally considered to be unsafe to eat for babies and toddlers. These foods include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Sliced bananas
  • Grapes
  • Carrots

Quartering these foods, chopping them into small pieces, or cooking down and mashing mashing the fruits and vegetables can help to make them safe to eat without taking any important flavors or nutrients from your child’s diet.

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