I used to think choking was some sort of corny shtick used to create suspense in movies – until my nephew choked and had the Heimlich Maneuver performed on him to dislodge food from his throat… more than once.
The realisation that this was something that could happen at any moment was terrifying to me. Once I became pregnant, I felt physically ill at the thought of my own baby choking. That feeling slowly intensified as my pregnancy progressed, and had burrowed deep within me by the time I was holding my tiny, helpless baby in my arms.
My nephew’s experiences with choking had created an unsettling sense within me, that choking was a when, not an if. The fear of having to spring into life-saving action at any moment weighed heavily on me, so I enthusiastically obliged when my sister urged my fiancé and I to do a baby CPR course, also encouraging everyone in our extended family to do the same.
When my son Ziggy was six months old, we started introducing solids. I had always imagined I would offer finger foods, but after finding my fears around choking were putting too much pressure on Ziggy, we decided to stick to purees and almost-too-soft foods until my confidence in his eating abilities grew. “There’s no rush!” I told myself and others around me, “He’ll get there in his own time.”
Barely a month later, one of the mums in my mother’s group told us tearfully that her baby had choked while eating. She had used the Heimlich Maneuver on him to shift food from his throat. He was OK, however, she was not. My old fears around choking resurfaced, and as I rushed to reassure her I wondered whether I was also trying to reassure myself.
Then, when Ziggy was 10 months old, it happened. We were enjoying a relaxing afternoon down by the pool, while Ziggy happily played in the dirt. In true baby-ninja form, he grabbed a leaf and popped it in his mouth before I could reach over and stop him. My fiancé and I peered into his little mouth and spotted the tiny leaf floating around. He had never gotten anything stuck in his mouth before and we weren’t really sure how to get it out. He didn’t seem bothered by it, and was determined to get back to splashing around near the pool and exploring the garden, so we left the tiny leaf in his mouth and watched him cautiously as he got back to the important business of playing, figuring it would just come out at some stage.
Shortly after, he spied me eating a pear, and as most parents will know, it’s almost impossible to say no to a baby on a mission to eat your food. I bit off a few pieces of pear that were so tiny, they were practically pulp. He popped them in his mouth and ‘chewed’ them with his gums happily. We thought nothing of it and continued enjoying our afternoon. About five minutes later, I saw Ziggy’s face change. He can’t breathe.
The fear that washes over you as a parent, when the person you grew – the one you love beyond words – is in trouble, is such a crippling feeling.
It felt like the air had been squeezed out of my lungs as I quickly grabbed him, turned him over and started hitting him on his back. Anyone who’s done this knows how uncomfortable it feels to hit your baby, and the instructors at CPR courses always tell you that you have to hit a lot harder than you think. So I hit him as hard as I could on his back until he coughed. The leaf became stuck again, so I hit him on his back over and over again. Dread completely gripped me in a way I had never felt before.
Then, through a blur of hot tears I saw him gagging up saliva, pear and leaves. He was breathing. He was crying, and clearly terrified, but he was breathing.
His little arms searched for me, pulling at my shirt and demanding to breastfeed – his long-held safe place. I told him no – I was so scared that he still had some of the leaf in his mouth or throat and might choke again. My refusal made him more afraid and he cried harder. Eventually, my fiancé encouraged me to feed him, and so I did, but for the rest of the day I felt irrationally afraid that the leaf might reappear at any time; that it was still hidden in his mouth somewhere.
In the days that followed I couldn’t stop the sting of tears while recalling that moment, and the persistent feeling of guilt. It felt like it was my fault. How did I not know how to sweep his mouth properly? I should have known.
That fear of my son choking is still with me, even now when he is nearly two years old.
Every time he coughs or gags while eating, he looks to me for reassurance. While I put on a brave face and smile at him, my stomach drops and I go into fight or flight mode. I try to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, accidents happen, but I’m not sure I totally believe those words. So I take solace in knowing that I can act fast in an emergency.
If you are a mother struggling with anxiety around feeding or choking, know that knowledge is power. Arm yourself with the tools you will need in an emergency. Do a Baby CPR course. This was the best advice given to me and I hope I can educate other mums on the benefit of doing this course.