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Would you know what to do if your child or baby was choking?

Thursday 4 January 2018

A young Asian girl sits at a table, holding her throat and coughing.
Children's small airways make it easy for them to choke on small objects and pieces of food or drink.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: watching their child struggle for breath because they’ve choked on some food or an object.

Choking occurs when a person’s airway is fully or partially blocked. Babies and young children have very small airways, which means they can choke on small objects like buttons, seeds, pebbles and hair ties. Food and liquids can also easily become lodged in the airways and cause choking.

How to tell if a child is choking

Signs that a child is choking can include:

  • holding or touching their throat
  • coughing, wheezing or gagging, which may be weak or ineffective
  • difficulty breathing
  • making a whistling or ‘crowing’ sound when trying to breath
  • unable to make sound or cry
  • lips, face, earlobes or fingernails turning blue
  • and loss of consciousness.

Choking first aid

Raising Children has instructions on providing first aid for choking infants and children, with pictures demonstrating each step. You can also download and print this guide by St John Ambulance Australia, and stick it somewhere handy like on the fridge.

If you think a child under 1 year is choking, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance, and stay on the phone with the operator while following the first aid steps. If an older child is choking, encourage them to cough to see if it dislodges the object. If it doesn’t, follow the first aid steps, calling for an ambulance if choking continues.

A first aid instructor demonstrates choking first aid for babies on a model doll of an infant.

There’s no substitute for learning in-person first aid. Parents and carers can access first aid training through a number of providers, including Queensland Ambulance ServiceSt John Ambulance, Australian Red Cross and First Aid Institute Australia.

Choking risks for children

Anything smaller than a D size battery (that’s the large round one) can be a choking hazard for babies and toddlers. Basically, that’s anything they can get inside their mouths, and anyone who’s spent time with little kids know that babies and toddlers want to put everything inside their mouths. So how can parents prevent choking?

The ACCC has created a downloadable ‘choke check’ tool, which parents can print out to see if an object is a choking hazard. If it can fit through the tool, it’s something a child can choke on. You can download the Choke Check here [PDF 2.27MB].

A baby sits on the floor surrounded by wooden toys. She puts a wooden truck in her mouth.

Small children should always be supervised while eating, and should sit while they eat and drink.

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, common foods that cause choking in children include:

  • hard lollies
  • chewing gum
  • corn chips
  • small round and oval foods, like grapes, berries and cherry tomatoes – these foods should always be cut up lengthways
  • seeds and fruit with seeds or pips, for example sunflower seeds or watermelon seeds
  • nuts
  • popcorn
  • hard foods that can break up into smaller pieces
  • and hard fruits and vegetables.

Prevent choking by cooking and grating, finely slicing or mashing hard fruits and vegetables like carrots, celery and apple. Cut food into pieces smaller than a pea that children can easily chew and swallow. Remove the skin from sausages and hot dogs and cut into small pieces.

Last updated: 17 January 2018