It is important for parents to understand the difference between a baby gagging on food and choking on food… gagging is normal infant development whereas choking can be harmful.
Learning from the mouth
During the first year of life babies learn many things through the mouth such as texture, temperature and taste. Until four to six months of age (after this age food can be introduced) babies only swallow liquid. Apart from the temperature and different tastes in milk nothing much changes. Swallowing becomes totally different when food is involved. There are different tastes, textures and temperatures to explore and become familiar with. Some babies are sensitive to these changes while others are not.
Soft, pureed or chewed food passes over the tongue touching the gag reflex at the back of the throat on its way down to the stomach. Suitably prepared food, softened and mushed (mechanically or in the mouth) slides down the oesophagus into the stomach and intestines for further digestion.
This process of swallowing often involves gagging when the food is new. Choking occurs when food items are too hard or large. Gagging is not the same as choking.
Choking occurs when a substance gets lodged in the small oesophageal tube and pushes into into the trachea (airway) lying alongside it.
Food matter can partially obstruct the trachea or completely obstruct the tube. This depends on the size and firmness of the lodged substance. Sitting upright helps food matter slide down.
Clearly, you never offer babies food that could get lodged in this tube such as peanuts, raw carrot, apple, and hard biscuits that don’t soften with saliva.
Gagging is when babies are getting use to different textures. Once food starts to descend down the oesophagus babies may regurgitate it up from the back of their throat but often swallow it again. It is important for babies to be in an upright position to aid this process. Gagging is necessary for babies to understand how to chew and swallow different textures. Giving babies soft foods that are age appropriate will usually not cause choking but often causes gagging during the chewing and swallowing process.
Always sit with babies when offering them solid food. Avoid showing panic reactions in front of them if they do gag. Instead, smile and be encouraging, knowing that they are capable of regurgitating and re-swallowing. A shock reaction from you can cause babies to panic and suddenly inhale the food they have in their mouth.
Help babies enjoy the experience of eating in a non-rushed, non-distracted atmosphere. Sit in front of them face-to-face with an encouraging smile and keep a ‘sippy cup’ of water handy.
Staying on mush
Many parents hold off moving their infants onto textured food. This can lead to fussy eating and slowed speech development. Parents may fear choking or only use processed foods from jars, squeeze packets and tins (kept soft for legal reasons).
This article was brought to you by Jan Murray, private child health consultant who is an internationally renowned expert in her field. Jan encourages parents in the area of infant sleep, nutrition, activities and family balance. Jan publishes regular ezine and blog articles to provide free parenting tips, tools and resources to educate and support those caring for young babies and children.