9 Common Foods a Toddler Can Choke On

Even a 4-year-old can gag on a grape or baby carrot. It's up to parents to know what's safe to serve

Jennifer Kelly Geddes Family (November 11, 2015)

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), choking is the number one cause of injury among kids — especially those ages 4 and under.

“Children aren’t born with the developmental skills needed to chew and swallow. They have to learn how to use their tongues to help break food down and move it from mouth to throat,” explains Gary Smith, MD, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “Toddlers and preschoolers are also learning to judge how much food to put in their mouths. Until they successfully master these steps, they can easily choke while eating.”

A little kid’s physique also puts him at risk of food-related choking. “Toddlers have a very small trachea, or windpipe, so food and other small items can easily get stuck,” notes Dana Schmidt, MD, a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “And since young children often can’t generate enough force to expel an object from the airway, it can lead to coughing, respiratory difficulty or even death.”

Related: Do You Know How to Save Your Child from Choking?

Preventing a food-related tragedy

To protect a child from choking, take some simple precautions, advises Smith. “Because choking can happen quickly, it’s critical to keep close watch when kids are eating,” he says. Never allow a tot to run or play with anything in his mouth. Don’t offer a small child a car snack, either. “While you’re focused on driving you may not notice your child choking in the backseat,” explains Smith.

It’s also important to watch older siblings during meals and snacks. Smith says many choking episodes occur when a big kid gives his brother or sister a food that isn’t safe.

Related: 4 Reasons to Eat More Slowly

Most important, be aware of the foods that are most dangerous for kids under 4 and either learn how to prepare them so they’re no longer a choking hazard or avoid them altogether. These are the nine foods most dangerous for small children to eat, according to the AAP and Schmidt, including ways to serve some of them safely.

1. Candy

candy in a jar candy in a jar Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

This category includes anything sticky or gummy, such as hard candies and lollipops, chewing gum and square-shaped caramels. Don’t offer any of these to kids 4 and under.

2. Tough cuts of meat that require chewing, such as steak

steak piece fork steak piece fork Photo: bonchan/Shutterstock

Serve little ones meat that’s stewed or shredded or skinless poultry. Cut tender meat into tiny pieces — ½ inch or smaller.

3. Raw fruit

apple slices apple slices Photo: Moving Moment/Shutterstock

Even cut up, apples, pears and other crunchy delights are too tough for a tot to handle. Instead, grate them and offer them in a confetti pile or cook them until they’re soft.

4. Whole grapes

grapes grapes Photo: Gyorgy Barna/Shutterstock

Round and slick, grapes are one of the most dangerous choking hazards. The safest way to serve them is to slice them into quarters or even smaller if they’re on the jumbo side.

5. Nuts and nut butters

peanut butter spoon peanut butter spoon Photo: bonchan/Shutterstock

Almonds, cashews, macadamias, walnut pieces and other nuts require serious tooth action to become small enough to swallow. Nut butter, especially if thickly spread or in gobs, can be a hazard, too. Skip whole nuts entirely. Nut butters can be okay if spread in very thin layers.

6. Cheese chunks

shredded cheese shredded cheese Photo: Gayvoronskaya_Yana/Shutterstock

Size and shape matter here. A small child can choke on a standard cube of cheese. Serve cheese shredded instead.

7. Baby carrots

baby carrots baby carrots Photo: Binh Thanh Bui/Shutterstock

These may seem tailor-made for tots, but baby carrots, as well as other raw veggies like celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers, should treated the same way as fruits: sliced very thin, grated or cooked.

8. Popcorn

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On family movie nights, hand your tot a cup of plain Cheerios to dig into. Popcorn, along with pretzels and chips of all kinds, is a serious choking hazard.

9. Hot dogs

hot dogs on grill hot dogs on grill Photo: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

Because they’re both slippery and round, frankfurters and other tube-shaped foods can easily slide into a small child’s trachea and get stuck there. Cut hot dogs and similar foods lengthwise and then across into very small pieces.

Related: First-Year Guide to Babyproofing Your Home

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