Children 3 years and younger are particularly at risk for choking because they are still learning to chew and swallow food, and they often put things in their mouths that they shouldn’t.

In addition to identifying and eliminating choking hazards, it’s important to know what to do—and what not to do—in a choking emergency.

Take immediate action

It’s natural for babies and young children to explore their world with their mouths, but unfortunately that puts them at higher risk for choking. When it happens, serious choking events require immediate intervention. Brain damage and death can occur in about four minutes.

“What I mean by a serious choking event is they have a piece of food stuck; they’re not moving air, they’re not speaking, they can’t cough,” says pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. “The piece of food is severely lodged in their airway.”

If your child is choking and cannot breathe at all, trying to clear the airway with your finger is likely not the best course of action.

“Do not stick your finger in your kid’s mouth if you cannot clearly see the object,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “It’s smarter with a baby or a young child to flip them on your lap, smack them on the back and call 911 if you are not quickly able to resolve that.”

Steps to prevent choking incidents

Dr. Bradshaw encourages parents to take some simple steps to help prevent a serious event. For example, food accounts for more than 50% of choking episodes, so keep foods including grapes, hot dogs, raw vegetables, nuts, hard or sticky candy, and chewing gum away from small children.

Additional steps include:

  • Cut food for babies and young kids into pieces no larger than a half inch.
  • Ensure that children are always sitting while eating, not running around or lying down.
  • Check under furniture and between cushions for small items that children could find and put in their mouths.
  • Don’t let young kids play with toys designed for older children, especially those with small pieces or parts.

Dr. Bradshaw says one of the best things a parent can do is to take a class on first aid and CPR. The American Red Cross offers both adult and pediatric CPR classes for a fee in the Eugene and Springfield area.

In these classes, parents will learn how to do the Heimlich maneuver, a first-aid technique for choking. This technique varies based on the age of the person who is choking, so it’s a good idea for parents to learn how to do the maneuver should they need to use it.

When not to intervene

If your child is having some breathing difficulties but is still able to speak or has a strong cough—don’t intervene. The child’s own cough is better for dislodging an object than back blows or using the Heimlich maneuver. But call 911, since a partial blockage of the airway could turn into a complete one.

For more information on how to respond to a choking incident, including an explanation of the Heimlich maneuver, check the American Academy of Pediatric’s Healthy Children website and these preventative tips from Nemours KidHealth.