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By Heather Zimmerman, M.D.​

Baby boy eating in a high chair

​Hearing or seeing that a child is choking is a terrifying experience for anyone, but brief choking is actually fairly common for children under 3. Often children will eliminate the airway blockage on their own, but it may give parents peace of mind to know how to avoid choking and when use emergency action.

Choking Prevention

The best way to prevent choking in young children is to ensure age-appropriate food and play.

Your pediatrician will give advice on when to introduce solids, finger food and table food. Infants as young as 7-10 months are ready to start some finger-feeding, and toddlers over 12-15 months usually don’t want any help with feeding. Regardless of where your child is developmentally, the following are a few things to keep in mind as he or she learns to eat new foods:

  • Avoid chewy meat until your child has had molars for a while.
  • Do not serve food shaped like a coin, as this is a common type of food to cause choking. For example, if serving a hot dog, split it in fourths length-wise so that it makes four hot dog spears rather than cutting it into little circles.

Facilitating safe play can be fairly easy if you follow the recommendations on toy boxes. Often if a toy is not approved for children under 3, it is due to small parts that might get swallowed or stuck in a child’s throat.

What to do if your Child is Choking

Despite protective measures, children often choke while learning to chew. Though it can be alarming, it is not always an emergency situation. It is possible for the child to cough up what he or she was choking on without assistance. Puff cereal is made to dissolve, so if you see your child gagging on this type of food, encourage him or her to drink some water to aid that process.

There are times when emergency action is needed. If a toddler’s face is turning blue and/or he or she can’t cough, hit the middle of the back firmly with the heel of your hand a couple of times. This will help dislodge the food. If this tactic does not relieve the choking immediately, call 9-1-1.​​​​​​​​