Choking hazards: foods to watch out for

Gagging isn’t the same thing as choking.


Gagging on food is quite normal, noisy and prevents choking because it brings food forward in the mouth away from the throat. It is quite common for babies learning to eat to sometimes gag as they master the art of moving food from the front of the mouth to the back and swallowing at the right time.  Don’t panic if this happens. The gag reflex is designed to protect baby's airways and helps them 'cough' food to the front of their mouth so they can either spit it out, or 'chew' it more to make it safe to swallow. 

Choking on the other hand is silent, because the airway is blocked and they can’t breathe.  Young children can choke on food quite easily. This is because they have small air and food passages, are still learning to move food around in their mouths and their biting, chewing and food-grinding skills are still developing. To minimise their risk of food-related choking the following information is recommended by the New Zealand Ministry of Health:

  • Always make sure babies and young children sit down while they eat.
  • Ensure that someone supervises them while they are eating or drinking.
  • Offer food that matches their chewing and grinding abilities.
  • Be aware of foods which are more likely to cause choking:
    • small hard foods that are difficult for children to bite or chew (e.g. nuts, large seeds, popcorn husks, raw carrot, apple, celery).
    • small round foods that can get stuck in children’s throats (e.g. grapes, berries, raisins, sultanas, peas, watermelon seeds, lollies).
    • foods with skins or leaves that are difficult to chew (e.g. sausages, chicken, lettuce, nectarines).
    • compressible food which can squash into the shape of a child's throat and get stuck there (e.g. hot dogs, sausages, pieces of cooked meat, popcorn).
    • thick pastes that can get stuck in children’s throats (e.g. chocolate spreads, peanut butter).
    • fibrous or stringy foods that are difficult for children to chew (celery, rhubarb, raw pineapple).
  • Reduce the risk of choking on these foods – you can:
    • alter the food texture – grate, cook, finely chop or mash the food.
    • remove the high risk parts of the food – peel off the skin, or remove the strong fibres.
    • avoid giving small hard foods, such as whole nuts and large seeds, until children are at least five years old.
  • Parents and caregivers need to learn choking first aid and CPR.

For information on choking first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), speak to your health professional or see your Well Child Tamariki Ora Health Book or the HealthEd website.

Ministry of Health, Food-related choking in young children (accessed 15 October 2016).

The materials published on this website are of a general nature and have been provided for informational purposes only. Always consult your medical practitioner or a qualified health provider for any further advice in relation to the topics discussed.


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