Common choking hazards in kids and babies & what to do when your child chokes

by Sr Catherine Rodwell, Survival CPR
Baby Yum Yum - Common choking hazards in kids and babies & what to do when your child chokes
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One of the greatest concerns new parents have is of their baby choking, says Sr Catherine Rodwell of Survival CPR. Parents regularly ask me what to do when a child chokes.

“Often the parents that take our infant and child CPR and first aid course say that their baby choked while drinking from the boob or bottle, and that their colour changed. That is, of course, scary for parents and they – understandably – panic.

But this isn’t, in fact, choking. When your baby is drinking either from the boob or a bottle, they tend to ‘guzzle’ and then there’s an overflow of milk into their mouths. This sometimes goes ‘down the wrong pipe’ – meaning the liquid travels down the trachea instead of the oesophagus – due to the overflow. This is actually termed ‘aspiration’, not choking.

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Choking is when the airway is blocked, while aspiration is when some fluid goes down the trachea and for that brief time the baby can’t breathe well due to fluid in the lungs. It will never be a massive amount of fluid as the baby reacts as soon as the fluid goes down the trachea and they will start to splutter.

What to do when your baby or child is aspirating or choking 

Yes, it’s scary, but don’t panic when your baby is choking on fluids. Your baby will be fine, they just need some firm pats on the back to help disperse the fluid in their lungs. Important: this is the one and only time you are allowed to pat anyone on the back while they are sitting up.

You may only ever pat someone on the back when they are sitting up if you are 100% sure that they have aspirated (that they’ve swallowed fluid and it “has gone down the wrong pipe”). Fluid cannot block your airway in the way food can, so patting/slapping someone on the back will help the fluid disperse.

If you aren’t sure it’s an object; food or fluid, it’s always safer to hit the person on the back while they have their head down. If someone is sitting up and you think they are choking, patting them on the back an make the object go further down the trachea. So, if you are 100% sure it’s only fluid and that they are aspirating, then you can slap them on the back.

As your baby gets older and starts solids – and starts putting objects in their mouth – that’s when you need to be aware of the risks of choking. Firstly, go through your home and have a look at the objects lying around that a little one will find on the floor or in low-lying areas and are likely to put in their mouth. Remember that when you have older children, they often leave potentially dangerous items like Lego blocks and Barbie shoes lying around – these objects block airways.

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Obviously starting solids is quite terrifying as babies do choke on food, so they need to be introduced to different textures safely and the types of foods that can cause choking need to be eliminated or adjusted so it’s safe for your baby.

To learn how to manage your choking child, it is imperative that you attend a CPR and Choking course.

Please contact us Survival CPR or 082 896 1920 to book a course in your area. We also run private courses at your home.

Common choking hazards around the home

Latex balloons

Latex balloons are the most common cause of non-food choking deaths in children. Popped or broken pieces of a balloon can completely seal your child’s airway. Never leave your child unattended with a filled balloon as it might pop in your absence.


Chunks of apple can easily become lodged in the airway so always supervise your child while they’re eating. For young children, cut apples into matchstick-sized pieces. For older children who prefer larger pieces, consider leaving the skin on, which will encourage them to chew more thoroughly.

Small toys

Small toys, especially round ones like balls and marbles, are incredibly dangerous for young children. A good rule of thumb: avoid giving kids younger than three any toy that can fit through a toilet paper roll. Encourage older siblings to put their toys away and keep an eye out for small object that might have rolled under couches or beds.


Although children can certainly choke on coins, they’re more likely to be ingested accidentally rather than cause true choking, where the airway is obstructed. However, a coin can become lodged in the oesophagus, which requires medical attention. Be particularly mindful of small coins, which are often left lying around.

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