Understanding the difference between choking and gagging can help your baby explore a variety of food without panic and anxiety while keeping your baby safe during mealtime. This quick read covers the basics you need to know, but I recommend a first-aid course if you are feeling super anxious about gagging or choking.

It’s important for you to work on your fear of choking to make mealtimes relaxing and enjoyable. Remember, you are laying the foundations for a lifelong love of food. If you find yourself putting your fingers in your baby’s mouth daily during mealtimes, this article is for you.

What is gagging?

Gagging is a natural reflex that helps prevent choking by pushing food or objects forward and away from the airway. It is VERY common in infants and young children as they learn to eat solid foods. Gagging may be triggered by food texture, taste, or size and is usually a harmless, normal part of development. A baby will often make noise, pull some odd faces, cough and even vomit when their gag reflex is activated. Try not to panic and avoid putting your fingers in their mouth as this can push the food into their airway. Trust that your baby’s tongue is working the food around their mouth.

What is choking?

Choking occurs when a foreign object, such as food or a small toy, becomes lodged in the airway, blocking airflow and making breathing difficult. Choking is a serious and potentially life-threatening situation that requires immediate attention. Choking is often silent; your baby’s face or lips may turn blue/purple. They cannot breathe and may become unconscious if the airway isn’t unblocked. I highly recommend a first aid and CPR course if you don’t know how to act during a choking episode. This knowledge will help you feel confident and empowered when feeding your baby.

Top 10 foods children are most likely to choke on:

  1. Hot dogs
  2. Round food: grapes, cherry tomatoes (always cut them in quarters), blueberries (always squish them).
  3. Popcorn (not recommended until over five years of age).
  4. Nuts and seeds
  5. Hard or sticky candy
  6. Chunks or large blobs of nut butter
  7. Raw vegetables, like carrot sticks or celery
  8. Dried fruits, such as raisins
  9. Large pieces of potato
  10. Crunchy fruit, like raw apples

Key differences between choking and gagging

  • Appearance and behaviour: A baby who is gagging may be coughing, sputtering, or making gagging noises but can still breathe. In contrast, a choking baby may have a panicked expression, be unable to make any noise or cry, and struggle to breathe.
  • Sounds: Gagging often produces loud noises, whereas choking can be silent or accompanied by high-pitched, weak sounds.
  • Breathing patterns: A gagging baby will usually continue to breathe, albeit with some difficulty, while a choking baby may have laboured, shallow, or absent breathing.

How to act if your baby is choking

  • If your baby is choking, remain calm and try to dislodge the object by performing back blows and chest thrusts, according to the guidelines provided by your country’s health authority.
  • Call emergency help if the object remains lodged or your baby becomes unresponsive.
  • Learn infant CPR and first aid, as these skills can save a life in an emergency.

Tips for preventing choking hazards

  • Cut food into manageable pieces (check out the Solids Starts Free App) and ensure appropriate textures for your baby’s age and developmental stage.
  • Always supervise your baby during mealtime, and avoid offering foods with high choking risks, such as those listed above.
  • Introduce solid foods gradually, paying close attention to your baby’s cues and readiness.

Understanding the difference between choking and gagging can help keep your baby safe during mealtime. Stay informed and prepared by learning infant CPR and first aid, and always be vigilant when introducing new foods to your baby.