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I’ve had three really scary choking kid experiences in my life. Two with my own kids, one with a friend’s kid. The one with the friend’s kid happened first. It was five years ago. We were out at a Mexican restaurant eating lunch. My friend gave her then-18-month-old a tortilla chip. He ate it and almost immediately started choking. We all sat there watching him turn blue while my friend patted his back trying to make the chip go down. (The absolute wrong thing to do.)  I had recently taken a CPR class, so I grabbed the little boy out of her arms, turned him upside down on my leg and gave him firm pats on the small of his back. The chip literally flew out of his mouth across the restaurant.

About a year later Big Girl was at Gymboree art class. I always sent in snack. On that day she got cantaloupe cut into pieces. About half way through the snack, she started choking. The teacher did the Heimlich and dislodged the fruit. I guess I didn’t chop it small enough because that soft piece of fruit had to be manually removed. I was shaking when my husband came home and told me about it.

More recently, Little Girl, my youngest, gave us a choking scare. It was a few months ago, in fact. Little Girl was only 17-months-old. We had given her a soft pretzel to eat sitting in her stroller. She’s not a stroller kid so a pretzel seemed like a good idea to keep her entertained. She bit off too much, however, and a piece got stuck at the back of her throat. A combination of too much of a too-slippery food got lodged at the top of her soft palate. She was choking, gagging, vomiting, couldn’t breathe. Remembering my CPR training, I looked into her mouth before attempting the Heimlich. I saw the pretzel was within reach, so I made a hook with my finger, reached in, and fished it out. I don’t know who was more frightened — her or me.

What’s the point? Why do I want to ruin your day with these unappealing accounts? I want to remind you that choking is scary stuff, especially since it’s the leading cause of death among children. One child dies every five days due to choking, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Serious, shocking fact, right?

Hoping to reverse this statistic, the AAP today released a new policy statement asking food manufacturers to put labels on food products that pose a significant choking hazard, and to change the design of new and existing food to minimize the risk. The new policy also asks for a recall of food products that pose a significant risk, and the creation of a nationwide food-related choking-incident surveillance and reporting system, according to the AAP press release.

Of course, as parents we’re the ones who have the best ability to protect our kids. We need to know, as I learned, that fruit should be cut up into tiny pieces, and we should avoid foods such as hard candy, nuts, seeds, raw carrots, hotdogs, and popcorn until a child is much older. Hotdogs, especially post the greatest risk since they cause more choking deaths than any other food, according to Gary Smith, MD, DrPH, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

You can figure out which foods might cause a child to choke by using common sense. Is it round? Is it firm? Is it hard to chew? Is it small enough to cover a child’s windpipe? When in doubt, chop it up, and make sure really small, round items such as raisins and grapes are cut into fours. Avoid hard items completely, and don’t skip the knife just because your child can take bites. As anyone who has a toddler will tell you, they often bite off more than they can chew. (Note to self: What were you thinking giving a toddler a whole soft pretzel? Definitely a choking hazard — and a stupid move.) A few more suggestions:

  • Make sure kids are sitting up when eating or drinking
  • Don’t feed kids in the car — you might not notice them choking
  • Make sure food is cut into chunks smaller than 1/2 inch
  • Don’t leave kids alone with food; watch older kids to make sure they don’t “feed” younger ones off-limit food
  • Avoid creamy or sticky food such as peanut butter or cream cheese, both of which can get stuck at the back of the throat.

Finally, as I can attest, everyone should take a CPR class, and repeat that class every few years. It is absolutely worth taking. The Red Cross has some wonderful programs, and you can also check with your local hospital or fire department.

I know how unbelievably lucky we were. Any of our experiences could have ended much differently. The kids could have been permanently disabled. They could have been brain damaged or worse. Hmmm. The last time I took a CPR class I was pregnant. More than two years go. Maybe it’s time for a refresher course. Anyone want to join me?

Have you taken a CPR class? Would you know what to do if your child — or someone else’s was choking? Did you realize how serious a risk this is?

6 Responses to “Choking: Don’t Let It Happen to Your Kid”

  1. Jamie says:

    The timing of this article is uncanny. Yesterday a friend had an experience with her 19 month old choking on a chicken nugget. Her daughter has low muscle tone and the physical therapists told her to stop dicing her food up so she could get more experience biting and chewing. Luckily my friend has taken Pediatric First Aid and CPR. We all worry if we would panic in that type of situation but she said a calm came over her and she just knew what to do.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by NaturalasPosMom: The American Academy of Pediatrics releases new policy statement related to choking. Worth a read. http://tr.im/Phca #safety #parenting…

  3. kb says:

    I was calmer when it wasn’t my own child, actually. But you’re right: If you are trained, it comes back to you.

  4. Joel says:

    Karen, nice article thank you. I will take a CPR class with you. -joel

  5. maureen says:

    great article Karen.

  6. maureen says:

    great article Karen

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