Reduce Your Child’s Risk of Choking on Food

Helping them focus and eating smaller pieces goes a long way
Toddler eating cucumbers in mother's arms

Toys, your keys, random food pieces on the ground — even if you look away for just two seconds, these all end up in your baby’s (or toddler’s) mouth one way or another. It’s all part of their natural exploring stage. But keeping them safe is our first priority and sometimes the leading culprit of injury among small children is something we do every day: eat food. 

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To start, it’s good to know which foods are the biggest choking hazards.

The main culprits

Hard candy causes the most choking episodes, followed by other candy, tough or large chunks of meat and bones. Other high-risk foods are hot dogs, seeds and nuts.

“But parents need to be aware that if their child chokes on a hot dog, nuts or seeds, they’re much more likely to be hospitalized,” says pediatrician Richard So, MD. “It’s a more dangerous form of choking even though it’s not as common.”

Hot dogs are compressible and block the airway easily. Nuts and seeds are often swallowed by handfuls and large amounts of them can become lodged in a child’s airway. Here are other foods to keep out of grabbing distance of kids under 4 years old since they’re potential choking hazards:

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  • Grapes.
  • Popcorn.
  • Chips.
  • Carrot sticks.
  • Cherry tomatoes.
  • Raw vegetable chunks.
  • Cheese chunks.
  • Sticky candy.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Chewing gum.

Choking prevention

Here a few tips to help prevent choking episodes:

1. Take into account your child’s stage of development. 

Children of different ages have different needs when it comes to eating. For example, kids under 2 years old don’t have molars, so they can’t grind or crush food. 

“Here’s where you really need to be careful with fresh fruits and vegetables like carrots that are very fibrous,” says Dr. So. “Once your child turns 2, they may have all their teeth, but may still have trouble swallowing different foods. Different shapes, sizes and textures can increase choking risks and this can be a concern up to age 5.”

2. Cut the food into smaller pieces. 

Food size is important. Cut their food into pieces small enough so they can’t get stuck in your child’s throat. And only give it to them a few pieces at a time.

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“The best size is about a quarter of the diameter of a hot dog or large carrot,” says Dr. So. “It’s also a good idea to cut the food into triangular shapes to allow air to pass just in case the food does get caught in the child’s throat. For grapes, try cutting them into disks.”

3. Set them down and make them focus.

Teach your child to swallow their food before they start talking or laughing to decrease their chances of choking. Kids at any age, particularly small children, should be sitting down when they eat — even when they’re eating candy. It’s important to supervise and make sure they’re not eating while they’re lying down, either. 

“Make sure they chew thoroughly,” he says. “Don’t let them run around and play with food in their mouths. When kids sit and focus on what they’re doing, risks of choking goes down significantly.”

Taking these necessary precautions goes a long way in preventing your child from choking. While accidents still happen, be prepared to act fast during an emergency by learning cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)

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