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Choking versus gagging at mealtimes: what you need to know

The thought of your child choking or gagging during mealtime is f*cking scary. There’s no denying it. 

Yet, choking and, in particular, gagging, happen because it’s part of kids learning to eat. No matter how closely you might watch them or how much attention you pay to how you serve their food. 

What’s a mama to do? With knowledge comes power, friend. So here’s a guide to choking and gagging: what it is, what causes it, and what to do. 

Before we get into it, please know the information in this article does not replace medical advice. Please speak to your doctor, and familiarize yourself with the protocols for what to do in an emergency. 

Ok, let’s do this. 

What is choking compared to gagging?

It’s important to know the difference between choking and gagging because you actually react differently to each.  

Choking

Choking is when something – so food, or perhaps a toy – is partially or completely blocking the airway. If choking, your child may make a high-pitched sound or may even be silent. Other signs of choking include: 

  • Inability to cry
  • Turning blue
  • Grabbing the throat
  • A panicked look
  • Becoming limp or unconscious.

F*ck. Deep breaths, mama. 

If you think your baby is choking:

  • Administer first aid. Here’s a guide from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the different actions you might take. 
  • Call emergency services immediately.

Gagging

Gagging occurs when food hits the – you guessed it – gag reflex. It causes a contraction in the back of the throat, which protects us from choking. Unlike choking, gagging in kids can be very loud and dramatic – expect lots of coughing. Your child may even vomit if it’s a particularly violent gag (yay).   

It’s very common, especially when you start your little one on solids because – fun fact – the gag reflex in babies sits forward in the mouth. So it’s easier to trigger. But, they grow out of it; by age one, the gag reflex moves to the back of the mouth, like an adult’s.

According to Jenny Best, the clever cookie behind the Solid Starts site and app, all babies gag on their starting solids journey (though, if your baby is still gagging frequently one or two months after starting finger foods, she does say to speak to your doctor). Carley Mendes, of Oh Baby Nutrition, says that while gagging is scary, it’s actually a good thing because it’s helping your baby to learn what size and shape food is safe to swallow. 

If you think your baby is gagging:

  • Don’t try to fish that piece of food out! You actually risk pushing it further into the mouth and making it a choking hazard. Let your baby’s gag reflex do its job and push the food out. 

What can you do to prevent choking and gagging? 

Simply put:

  • Don’t feed your kid known choking hazards (no matter how cute you think they’ll look chomping on a hot dog).
  • Serve them appropriately-sized and shaped foods, especially if you’re following a baby-led weaning approach to feeding. Here’s a great guide food sizing. 
  • Make sure they’re ready to start solids
  • Feed them in a safe environment – so sitting up, and under supervision.

And what can you do if you’re still freaking out?

I still get sweaty every time I see my son gag during mealtime. Will it turn into a choke?!

One thing you can do is take a first-aid course. Learn what to do if ‘it’ happens. The American Red Cross and the Australian Red Cross are just two – of many – organizations that offer classes. 

You can also try a little exposure therapy. Solid Starts has a range of videos showing babies gagging on different foods. While it sounds like horrendous viewing (I know I’d rather be watching Schitt’s Creek, Sex/Life, or, well, anything else), they’re actually great for showing you what gagging looks like, so you can recognize the signs. They really helped me. 

Mamas, how do you cope when you see your baby gagging? Have you had a choking incident? What happened? No judgment, of course! Tell us in the comments.  

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