Little scares a mother more than hearing that half-retching, half-coughing noise that she almost universally describes as “choking”.
But just because it scares a mother doesn’t mean it should scare a mother.
You see, that little cough/retch? That’s not choking. Generally, it’s gagging.
According to the Mayo Clinic, choking is “when a foreign object becomes lodged in the throat or windpipe, blocking the flow of air”. By definition, choking makes no sound, since no air is able to flow through a blocked windpipe.
Gagging, on the other hand, is a function of the gag reflex, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the reflex contraction of the muscles of the throat caused especially by stimulation (as by touch) of the pharynx”. Gagging is an involuntary reaction in which the the throat contracts to prevent choking.
Did you catch that?
Gagging prevents choking.
While the sound of gagging can make a mother’s heart jump into her throat, it isn’t a sign that something is going wrong with your child. It’s a sign that something’s going right. Your child’s body is working as it’s supposed to, protecting your child from choking.
What does this mean for the mother?
For one, it means you can breathe a sigh of relief. When I’m feeding Tirzah Mae and she gags on a bite, my heart leaps just like other moms’ hearts do – but since I know what gagging means, I can then relax and thank God that He created her body to help keep her safe.
For two, it means you need to be vigilant when feeding your child. A choking child isn’t going to give a cough to let you know to rush to her side. A choking child can’t breathe, can’t make noise. Which is why young children should sit down to eat and why mom should be right there beside them while they’re eating. Letting a child wander with snack in hand ups the choking risk in two ways: a child distracted by walking is more likely to chew insufficiently or to send something down the wrong pipe (I find this to be the case when I’m walking and eating) and a child who is wandering about while eating is not necessarily being supervised in such a way that a caretaker can quickly intervene were true choking to occur. (There are social and nutritional benefits of sitting down to eat as well, but I won’t go into those here.)
When I was working as a WIC dietitian, mothers mentioned choking often in reference to introducing solids to their babies. Often, mothers insisted that their eight to nine month old babies couldn’t eat anything but pureed baby foods because they choked on them. Of course, these moms didn’t realize that their children were gagging rather than choking. But what about their response? Is mom right to say that her child can’t eat a certain food or a certain texture because she gags on it?
Yes and no.
Gagging is an interesting thing. While the gag reflex is classically induced by touching the pharynx (that is, the soft tissue at the back of the throat), it can also be induced by smells (as of rotten food), by sight (as with seeing maggots), or even by a thought (such as the thought of eating rotten food or finding maggots in the bottom of your lunch pail). Additionally, some people have more or less sensitive gag reflexes – such that different textures, different smells, and different tastes cause them to gag.
For most children, gagging when introduced to a new texture is simply the body doing what it’s supposed to do, keeping foreign bodies from entering the airway. As a child becomes more adept with and used to the new texture, gagging should decrease. However, in certain circumstances, children with hypersensitive gag reflexes will have severe sensory issues with food which can be exacerbated by forcing a child to eat foods that stimulate their gag reflexes.
So what should mom do?
In general, if your child gags at the first taste of a new food (or first try with a new texture), I recommend waiting until your child is calm (which may be two seconds or may be much longer) before trying another bite.
If your child eats several bites of that new food, gagging two or three times throughout the feeding, this represents a normal response and there is no reason to stop feeding your child that food or texture. Gagging will become less frequent as the child becomes more familiar with the taste and/or texture of that food.
If, on the other hand, your child gags on three successive bites of the same food (or if your child turns away or clenches his/her teeth when you offer a bite), I recommend that you call it quits for the meal. This ensures that you aren’t creating unpleasant associations with that food in your child’s mind – those unpleasant associations can actually condition your child’s gag reflex to always respond to that particular food, a situation you definitely want to avoid.
Then, you’ll want to do a little Sherlock-style sleuthing. What do you think it was that triggered your child’s gag reflex? Was this a brand new flavor for your child or has he tasted it before? Was this a new texture for your child or has he had a similar texture before? If this was a brand new flavor, try mixing that food with another accepted food the next time you try it. If it was a brand new texture, try modifying the texture just a little bit the next time you try it (if baby has only had watery purees and baby gagged on a lumpy mix, offer a thicker puree before introducing a lumpy mix; if baby has only had purees with some lumps and gagged on chunks, try getting your child used to minced textures before introducing chunks; etc.) The goal is to ease a child’s transition into the next texture “level” or novel flavor.
It is valuable to continue working at introducing novel flavors and textures, despite the gag reflex (while being respectful of a child’s cues – remember to stop and try again later if a child gags on every bite or if the child turns away or clenches his teeth). Children who do not learn to eat textured foods by 8-9 months are more prone to persistent sensory food issues lasting into adulthood.
But what if your child does persist in gagging at every bite? This may be a sign of a hypersensitive gag reflex, in which case it would be worthwhile to ask your doctor about a referral to a multidisciplinary feeding therapy team that can evaluate causes of the difficulty and develop strategies for helping your child overcome these difficulties.