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Choking hazards in children

Small toys, buttons, refrigerator magnets. Babies and young children are always sticking things in their mouths that don’t belong there. This, coupled with their inability to fully chew food, explains why choking remains a leading cause of death for children younger than four. Most of the time, children are able to expel or swallow whatever is blocking their airway. But in those rare instances where the blockage can’t be dislodged, choking can lead to full airway obstruction and may become fatal.

Leslie Rideout, RN, FNP, PHD, Pediatric Trauma Nurse Coordinator at the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute at Tufts Medical Center, urges all parents to take basic life support classes and learn CPR in case of an emergency like choking. “By learning these lifesaving interventions, care providers may feel better prepared to intervene during an emergency,” she said.

What is a choking hazard?

“A choking hazard can be defined as any small object that can get caught in the throat and block the airway,” Emory Petrack, MD, Chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Tufts Medical Center at Tufts Medical Center, said. The most common culprits are food and toys, including:

  • Small pieces of hotdog
  • Whole grapes
  • Marshmallows
  • Marbles
  • Latex balloons

While young children are at the highest risk for choking, latex balloons are easy to accidentally inhale even for school-age children.

How to prevent choking

To reduce your child’s risk of choking, pay close attention to the age guidelines on toy containers. You can also purchase a choke tube tester to determine which objects are small enough to be choking hazards. When your child is eating, cut up food into small pieces and watch them closely. This means no eating in the back seat or on-the-go.

Dr. Petrack also stresses the important of ‘choke proofing’ the home – items like coins, pen caps and button batteries can be extremely dangerous if breathed in or ingested by a child. “Get down to the eye level of your child and see what the world looks like from that level. Parents are usually surprised by what they find, especially under the couch,” he said.

If your child is choking

If your child is choking and under one year of age, give up to five back blows with the baby face-down, hitting them firmly on the back between the shoulder blades. If the blockage is not dislodged, turn the baby over and place two fingers in the middle of their chest just below the nipples. Push sharply downwards up to five times.

If your child is over one year of age, give up to five back blows. If the blockage is not dislodged, you can perform the Heimlich maneuver by holding your child around the waist and pulling inwards and upwards above their belly button.

If you are unable to dislodge the blockage or your child becomes unresponsive, seek emergency medical attention and perform CPR until help arrives.

Watch these demonstrational videos by the Red Cross to see how to perform back blows and abdominal thrusts step-by-step. For CPR training, you can find a local class through the Red Cross and order a First Aid/CPR Chart for Parents from the American Academy of Pediatrics through the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute.