Know the Difference Between Gagging and Choking on Food

Know the Difference Between Gagging and Choking on Food

Gagging and choking are not the same

Our bodies are amazing. When we gag, our body’s normal reflex is to push large pieces of food that is not chewed to the front of the mouth. It can then be re-chewed and swallowed (or spat out). It may involve coughing and spitting food out, or it may be silent. Sometimes eyes water and gagging sounds are made. In babies, the gag reflex is quite strong. It lessens as they move from having milk only to solid food, and they build eating skills.

It is distressing to see your child upset when eating. Know the gagging response is the body’s natural defence against choking.

It is common to confuse gagging with choking.

Choking is when an object or food (hard or food not chewed) becomes stuck in the throat or airway. This can fully or partially block air getting into the lungs and is life-threatening. At first a baby may cough to try to dislodge it. If a baby is choking, they are not usually making any sounds, they may lose colour and cannot breathe. This requires immediate first aid.

Find out more about first aid for choking

Raising Children's Network

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Making eating safe

The main reason for anxiety about starting solids or moving on from puree foods is the worry of choking.

Lower the risk by following safe eating practises.

  • sitting baby upright and supported for example in a highchair
  • make foods safer to eat by cooking food until soft and cutting into smaller pieces or strips that your baby can hold with their fist
  • always watch your child while they eat
  • let your child eat at their own pace.

Read more about safe eating

Learning to eat takes time, remember that eating is natural. Above all, be calm and confident and trust your baby. When your baby is eating you can talk to them encouraging them to chew.

Given the chance your baby will gradually increase the range of food and textures they eat. This is important for them to grow healthy and strong.

What to do if your baby gag’s on food

If your baby starts to cough or gag, give them time to work through it on their own. Let them try and cough it out. Don’t hit a young child on the back. Don’t try and remove the food with your fingers at first. This increases the risk of pushing it back and getting lodged in their throat. Sometimes your baby might actually vomit. Again, this is a normal response to protect against choking.

First aid key points

If baby is choking, phone 000 immediately and follow first aid steps (see above).

If a child shows signs of choking, ask the child to cough. If this doesn’t clear the blockage, phone 000 (triple zero) and follow first aid steps.

To feel more confident on how to manage choking look out for a first aid course to do. Talk to your child health nurse if you have any questions.