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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Preventing choking on food by children

Young children can be at risk for choking on food. Although children can choke on any food, foods that are hard or tough to chew, slippery, small and round, or sticky present an increased risk.

For example, toddlers (children learning to walk, typically 1 to 2 years old) have limited control of their mouth muscles and lack back teeth to grind up hard food. Food may slide back into the throat before it is completely chewed.

Children 3 to 4 years old may have back molars but are still learning to chew. They are often easily distracted while eating - a potential risk for choking.

Children choke either because a large object closes off the throat or because smaller objects block the airway into the lung.

What to look for when choosing foods for children

Many nutritious foods can be hazardous for young children unless cooked or cut into bite size pieces. Here are some foods that may cause problems:

Both small and large pieces of food may cause choking.
Small hard pieces of food may get caught in the airway if they are swallowed before being chewed well. Larger pieces, more difficult to chew, are more likely to completely block the throat.

  • Nuts
  • Raw carrots, raw broccoli, raw cauliflower, etc.
  • Hard fruit especially with peels such as crisp apples

Food items shaped like a tube may cause choking because they are more likely to completely block the throat than other shapes.

  • Hot dogs
  • Link sausage
  • Whole carrots
  • Grapes
  • Frozen banana pieces

Foods which are firm, smooth, or slick may slide down the throat into the airway.

  • Hard candy
  • Whole kernel corn
  • Peanuts, especially Spanish peanuts

Dry, hard food may be hard to chew yet easy to swallow whole.

  • Hard pretzels
  • Tortilla chips
  • Popcorn

Sticky foods can stick to the back of the mouth or roof of the mouth and block the throat. They are difficult to remove.

  • Nut butters alone
  • Processed cheese chunks/slices
  • Gummy bears, marshmallows
  • Fruit roll-ups

Hard to chew foods which are fibrous or tough.

  • Bagels
  • Steak, roast, other fibrous meats
  • Meat jerky
  • Toddler biter biscuits

Be aware that teething medications can sometimes numb mouth and throat muscles. Check directions carefully.

Teething medications given to children in child care need to be authorized in writing by a parent and health care provider. (WAC 388.150.230)

Prevention is the best solution

  • Always supervise eating
    Children do best when sitting to eat. It lets them concentrate on chewing and swallowing. Join the children at the table. Eating or drinking while running or playing is a distraction and can cause choking problems.

  • Decrease outside distractions
    Such as television, games, pets, etc. during meals and at snack times.

  • Cut food into bite size pieces or thin slices.
    Grind or mash tough food.

  • Cook food until soft, especially beans, pasta and rice.
    These foods are favorites but need to be soft enough to chew easily.

  • Steam vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli.

  • Eating in cars/buses may also cause problems.
    It is hard for the driver to safely pull over fast enough if a child is choking.

  • Serve small amounts of food at a time.
    Keep portion size small. With babies be sure the mouth is clear before giving the child another spoonful of food.

Staff trained in CPR and First Aid must be present when children are eating.