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Starting Solids? These 10 Foods Are the Biggest Choking Hazards for Babies
Updated on
December 1, 2023

Starting Solids? These 10 Foods Are the Biggest Choking Hazards for Babies

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Starting Solids? These 10 Foods Are the Biggest Choking Hazards for Babies.
Starting Solids? These 10 Foods Are the Biggest Choking Hazards for Babies

From day one, you want your baby to have the best nutrition to help them grow. And while the first six months or so are limited to breast and/or bottle, introducing your baby to solid foods brings a lot of options to the plate (literally)—which means more options for choking hazards.

It’s super important for little ones to learn to eat solids and finger foods in the safest way possible, which means parents and caregivers need to be aware of which foods have the highest risk of causing choking and either prepare them so they’re safer for small mouths or, in some cases, avoid them entirely.

Here are the top 10 foods babies and toddlers can choke on, and how to reduce choking hazards for children under age five.

Whole grapes

Grape

Grapes are a popular snack for all ages, but they’re particularly dangerous for babies and toddlers because their average size and shape are just the right size to block a tiny esophagus. The same goes for cherries, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes, since they’re a similar size and shape.

But no need to avoid these tasty fruits! You can reduce the choking risk by cutting them into narrow lengthwise quarters or slices before serving them to your little one, says nutritionist Malina Malkani, owner of Malina Malkani Nutrition and author of Simple & Safe Baby-Led Weaning. The narrower sliver shape can slide down the esophagus much easier, and if it does get lodged, it’ll leave some room for air on either side so your kiddo can still cough to get it out.

We get it, it can be time consuming to do that much slicing, but it’s important to not cut corners here—just cutting grapes, cherries and small tomatoes in half means they still form the circular shape of the throat, so they can still easily get stuck. To save some time, try a grape slicer that automatically cuts small fruits into the perfect slivers.

Whole hot dogs

Hot Dog

Leaving hot dogs whole means your new eater gets to determine on their own how much they’ll bite off—and sometimes they bite off more than they can chew. Rather than leaving kiddo to their own (still developing) sense of judgment, you should cut hot dogs into small slices and then half or quarter those slices. The pieces should be large enough to chew (so baby doesn’t just automatically swallow them) but small enough for baby to use all their mouth and jaw muscles to thoroughly chew it. The same advice applies to whole raw carrots and whole baby carrots. Just make sure that along with being sliced, they’re also cooked enough so they’re soft and easy to bite into.

Chunks of raw veggies and fruits

Veggie

While we’re obviously champions of healthy food, even the most nutritious foods can still be choking hazards for babies. Raw fruits and vegetables, especially when left in larger chunks, can be difficult for new eaters to chew and swallow. The best way to prepare hard, raw veggies and fruits is by grating or shredding them into bite-size slivers or cooking them until they’re tender, Malkani says.

Chunks of meat and cheese cubes

Cheese

The same goes for meat—don’t be afraid to cook it until it’s mush. Most prepared baby foods have pureed or very finely shredded meat to reduce the risk of choking, and it’s best to avoid giving your baby pieces of meat that are any larger than that until their molars come in and they’ve really mastered chewing.

Similarly, “cheese should be served shredded or grated rather than in chunks or blocks,” Malkani says. Cheese cubes are typically hard and difficult for new eaters to break down into smaller pieces, so be sure to take that block of cheddar to the cheese grater before offering it to your baby.

Hard candies

Candy

These are the first items on the list that babies and toddlers need to avoid completely. Hard candies like lollipops and suckers, Jolly Ranchers and mints can’t be chewed at all, so even little ones with teeth can’t break them down into smaller pieces, and they certainly won’t understand how to suck on them to make them smaller.

And don’t be tempted to break them down yourself—as you can imagine (and may have tried before), hard candies “are impossible to modify,” Malkani says, “and they’re best avoided during the toddler years.”

Even if your little one did understand how to suck on hard candies without trying to bite down, they’re still the perfect size and shape to get caught in their throat. In fact, one study found that hard candies were the leading cause of choking in kids of all ages, so it warrants using extra caution in keeping them away from babies and toddlers.

Gummy or chewy candies

Gummy

You also shouldn’t give your new eater any candy that takes effort to chew, like jelly beans, gummy bears, marshmallows and caramels. Even if your baby already has teeth, the sticky, chewy texture of these candies makes it really tough for babies to break down thoroughly before swallowing, so the candy can get stuck on its way down the esophagus. It’s best to avoid these candies until your child has a solid set of molars and their jaw muscles are coordinated enough and strong enough to completely break down sticky, gummy foods.

Gum

Gum

Speaking of gummy foods, let’s talk about basic chewing gum. Whether it’s bubble gum, sugar-free gum or any other kind of gum, this is another choking hazard that should just be avoided entirely. Giving smaller pieces isn’t going to reduce the choking hazard on this one, either—babies and toddlers won’t understand that gum needs to be constantly chewed, so they’re very likely to swallow it and the texture makes it likely to get lodged in small throats. It’s best to leave gum out of reach of little ones, including out of Halloween and Easter baskets, until they’re five years old or older.

Nut butter

Nut Butter

Even if you buy the smooth, creamy kind, globs of nut butters (including peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter and even sunflower seed butter) can get stuck in your child’s airway. No matter how good of a chewer your kiddo is, the thick, sticky consistency of nut butters can’t be broken down by chewing thoroughly like other choking hazards.

Instead, “nut butters can be spread into a thin layer on bread,” Malkani says. And when we say a thin layer, we mean a thin layer—the younger your child is, the thinner the layer should be, but even older kids and adults should avoid huge globs and spoonfuls of nut butter.

Alternatively, nut butters can be “mixed into yogurt or oatmeal to thin the consistency for safer swallowing,” Malkani says. And when it comes to the different types of nut butters, it’s best to avoid the chunky kinds, as the whole and chopped nuts only increase the choking risk.

Whole nuts

Nuts

This is another healthy snack that’s unfortunately going to need to stay off the menu for the first few years. Whole nuts are dense, and it’s difficult to ensure that your little one is chewing them completely before swallowing. And since a baby’s airways are so much smaller than an adults, many nuts are just the right size to get stuck on the way down.

Popcorn

Popcorn

Sorry, popcorn lovers, but babies and toddlers shouldn’t have it. “Popcorn can’t be adequately modified for safer serving,” Malkani says. There’s no way to completely eliminate the hulls (the thin, hard pieces that get stuck between your teeth), and most pieces are small enough that they can get missed while chewing. Those small pieces “can be aspirated into the lungs, which can lead to infection and pneumonia,” Malkani says, “so it’s best to avoid it altogether until after the age of four, when most kids will have their molars and a better developed ability to chew.”

How to minimize choking hazards

For all solid foods (not just the ones listed here), “caregivers can reduce the risk of choking by cooking, cutting, shredding/grating or thinning whole foods,” Malkani says. Here’s what that looks like in more detail:

  • Cook harder foods, including chunks of meat, until they’re tender and super easy to chew. Think soft enough for you to easily mash with your finger or a fork.
  • Cut or shred whole foods or larger pieces into pieces smaller than the width of baby’s esophagus, and it’s best if the pieces are cut into sliver shapes so they can be dislodged more easily.
  • Thin out thicker foods like oatmeal, Greek yogurt and nut butters with water, formula or milk.

Another key thing to remember is that your baby’s “bite size” is a lot smaller than your adult “bite size.” Make sure each piece can easily fit into baby’s mouth with some room to spare for chewing.

The introduction to solid foods can be a really exciting time, and the potential choking hazards don’t have to put a damper on the fun. Recognizing and reducing the risks can make sure your child explores new foods safely, so you can focus on enjoying this milestone with your little one.

If your baby or toddler does experience a choking episode, either due to food or another choking hazard, emergency room doctors recommend following the American Red Cross’s “five-and-five” approach—alternating back blows and chest thrusts—as well as taking an infant-focused CPR class as a preventative measure.


Amylia Ryan

Associate Editor

Amylia Ryan is the Associate Editor at Babylist, specializing in the topics of health, wellness and lifestyle products. Combining a decade of experience in writing and editing with a deep passion for helping people, her number one goal in her work is to ensure new parents feel supported and understood. She herself is a parent to two young children, who are more than willing to help product test endless toys, books, clothes, toiletries and more.

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