Tips for preventing children from choking

Be prepared by knowing the dangers of choking in young children and how to prevent it.

Children explore by putting things in their mouth, which can lead to choking.
Children explore by putting things in their mouth, which can lead to choking.

Children are curious. At a very young age they are learning about the world around them through all of their senses: this includes taste. Young children tend to explore by putting things in their mouth, however, choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death in children under the age of five, making it something we should all be concerned about and aware of. Remember that anything a child can reach (such as the mobile above the crib, a bottle of baby powder, etc.) can be put into their mouth and become a potential choking hazard.

The most common cause of choking in young children is food. Children younger than three are especially vulnerable because young children tend to put things in their mouths and have smaller airways that are easily blocked. Babies as young as six or seven months can bite off a piece of food with their front teeth but won’t be able to chew it until their molars come in around the age of four.

To minimize the risks of choking, Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips:

  • Avoid foods that could be a choking hazard. These include hot dogs, grapes, carrots, raisins, spoonsful of peanut butter, chunks of meats or cheeses and popcorn.
  • Cut the child’s food into very small bites and ensure that they only have one piece in their mouth at a time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that food be cut into pieces no larger than ½ inch.
  • Be aware of deflated balloons, coins, beads, rocks, marbles, small toy parts and batteries. Check below furniture, behind curtains and the backyard for potential dangers. Many times items will fall out of pockets or purses and end up in reach of a small child.
  • Always follow the manufacturing guidelines for age recommendations. Some toys have small parts that can cause choking. To determine if a toy is too small, see if it passes through an empty, cardboard toilet paper tube. If it does, then it is too small. Any object smaller than a golf ball has the potential to block an airway.
  • The size of a young child’s trachea or windpipe is that of a drinking straw. Similar to the foods mentioned above, marshmallows, caramels, jelly beans and ice cubes are also very dangerous and could block the windpipe of a small child. All of these foods that can conform to the size and shape of the trachea.

To prevent chocking when your child is not in your care, ask your babysitter if they have been certified in CPR and First Aid or have taken a babysitting course. Be very specific about the foods your child can have while you are away. Also insist that the babysitter will be attentive to your child at all times and they know what to do in the event of an emergency. Leaving detailed instructions, including the address and directions to your home, will be very helpful if a caregiver has to call 911.

Remember, kids cannot alert you when they are choking, therefore:

  • Never leave a small child unattended while eating.
  • Children of all ages should sit up straight when eating.
  • Children should have a calm, unhurried meal and snack time. Encourage slow eating.
  • Children should not eat when walking, playing or riding in a car.

Remember any food or toy can be a choking hazard. Take the time now to become prepared. If you are a parent or caregiver of a young child, it is highly recommended that you take a CPR and First Aid course. To find one in your area, contact your local American Red Cross, YMCA, American Heart Association chapter or your local MSU Extension office. Hospitals and health departments in your community would also be good resources. Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School both have great resources and specific details on how to assist an infant or child who is choking, however taking a class is always the best option.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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