Choking, Gagging & All That Scary Stuff

We introduced solids to our daughter when she was 6 months and she absolutely loved the experience of food. I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck. One of her first foods (avocado) ended up in projectile vomit immediately after a rather bad gagging session…and that experience terrified me.  It took a long time to feel comfortable, but as we both had more experience I became much more confident at meal times.

The biggest difference in my confidence was understanding the difference between choking and gagging.

Gagging is totally normal. It is not a sign she is choking or does not like a food. Your baby is learning to use her tongue and this is a new experience for her. Gagging is her way of avoiding choking (not a precursor) — making sure food doesn’t go down too quickly. She will do this a lot in the beginning and less over time as she gets used to food. Her gag reflex is actually MUCH further toward the front of their mouths than an adult’s, so seeing a baby “gag” on food is not uncommon, and many babies have sensitive gag reflexes. When your baby is gagging, you will likely hear her cough or sputter as she pushes food out of her mouth or back to the front of it. Some babies with sensitive gag reflexes will even vomit after gagging (similar to the sensation of needing to throw up if you put your toothbrush too far back in your mouth). Totally normal and actually a good sign she is learning how to properly use her tongue!

Choking happens when the airway is blocked — and if this is the case, your child will NOT be able to cry or make much sound. Her coughs will be weak or ineffective (in most cases, you would not be able to hear a cough because the airway is blocked). She would show visible signs of difficulty breathing and her skin color will turn blue-ish.

The other thing that made me more comfortable was actually NOT giving her pureed food. It seems counterintuitive — purees would be “safer” in theory, right? In almost a nonsensical twist, I found that she actually gagged much less when she was able to feed herself. We began Baby Led Weaning just before 7 months. The benefits I found were that she gagged less (she was in control of what and how much went into her mouth…and surprise! She knew better than us!). She also learned how to chew food before swallowing (whereas purees only require a baby to swallow so chewing is learned later). It was really amazing to watch a small baby choose how to feed herself and the trust I learned to have in her decision-making was surreal.

My reduced fear went a long way to making meal times less anxious and more enjoyable for both of us. Always be present and ensure safety through careful watching and preparation — but be confident that your baby is smart, capable and learning with every bite.