Tracey Stone: Chewing and Choking

Teething and weaning both generally starts at approximately 6 months of age. Babies don’t have to have teeth for weaning to start, as their gums are hard enough to break through food alongside a bit of sucking. Once teeth are present, they are more able to bite off chunks of food. As much as this is an exciting and much-anticipated milestone, it also brings with it the very real fear that biting off bits of food and chewing, will run the risk of your little one choking. Traditional or baby led weaning both can create the potential for food getting into the wrong place.

Your child’s teeth are pretty amazing things, playing an important role in your child’s diet and development. Their new front teeth bite and tear off pieces of food, and when they are a little older their molars towards the back are used for grinding. To minimise the risk of choking at this stage, there are specific things to look for that they are ready to wean. Your baby needs to be able to sit independently with a steady head; be able to see food, pick it up and get into their mouth, and be able to swallow food. Leaving it until 6 months has significant health benefits, plus your child’s chewing skills also develop at this age. This all helps their confidence (and yours) with this new skill.

‘Gagging’ or ‘choking’ are often used when a baby or small child is eating, and things go a little wrong. They both describe a moment of fear which can be intense, but their meanings are not the same. Knowing the difference will hopefully offer reassurance and give you the skills to act in the safest way for all.

Gagging is a natural reflex which protects food from travelling too far back into your child’s mouth.  When this happens, their tongue moves forward, their mouth opens and they may begin to cough. They may go red in the face, and their eyes may get watery. Gagging is your babies’ way of cleverly managing the problem all by themselves, it’s not dangerous, and actually quite common. It’s horrid seeing someone you love struggle, especially your own child, but try to look unruffled and relaxed, even if you feel your own heart racing. Once they are calm again offering a big reassuring smile confirms to them they did well and it’s not scary.

Choking is very different and happens when something partly or completely blocks their airway. Coughing and spluttering could mean they have a partial blockage, which hopefully this automatic reaction will clear. If your child’s airway is completely blocked they may struggle to breathe, gasp, and their skin and lips may look bluish. If they make no sound at all during this struggle is the sign that they need your help quickly. Take some time to have a look at this link to give you some confidence to prepare well for this next stage.

Babies and children are very good at managing what goes into their mouths and their portion sizes too, which may reduce your worries. Staying with them at all times whilst they are eating will keep them safe, and you can encourage them and intervene if necessary. Limiting distractions during mealtimes also allows your child to concentrate on their meal. The first gag is terrifying, but you may find as it happens more often (which it will) your anxiety may lessen. Chewing with teeth develops facial muscles which are all part of healthy speech and language development so don’t fear it – encourage it as is helps with their onward development. You can always have a chat with your HV or GP too if you feel this is something you need more support with.

General advice only, Tracey does not endorse the brand.

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