One of my family’s favorite snacks, whether we are at the movies or playing a board game at home, is popcorn. It’s the perfect crunchy texture and since it's easy to make with a wide variety of flavors, it's the ideal snack for any time or any place. But when can toddlers eat popcorn? When your kids are younger, the thought of popcorn pieces getting stuck in their throat and teeth can be concerning.
Pediatrician Dr. Jarret Patton tells Romper that while there are many obvious choking hazards for children like hot dogs, candy, and gum, even seemingly healthy treats like grapes, nuts, raw veggies, and popcorn can be dangerous for young children. “All these foods should be delayed until they turn 4 years old,” explains Patton, “because their ability to chew and swallow foods is better at that age.” After your child turns 4, he says these foods become safer to eat.
Avoiding foods that can easily get stuck in your toddler's mouth is crucial. Choking is the leading cause of injury in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and children under the age of 4 experience the highest rate of food related choking. The New York State Department of Health noted that every five days, one child in the United States will die from choking on some kind of food, and more than 12,000 children end up in hospital emergency rooms each year from food-choking related injuries.
And while it may seem like an innocent treat, there have been instances in which young children have died from choking on popcorn. In 2016, reported CBS 6 News, a 2-year-old toddler, Miranda Grace Lawson, died after choking on a popcorn kernel at her mother’s birthday party. She died from complications of brain damage due to a lack of oxygen when the popcorn kernel got stuck in her throat, leaving her unable to breathe.
Other than popcorn, there are other food-related choking hazards to look out for. The New York State Department of Health suggested that to minimize any chance of choking in your toddler, kids should avoid sticky or slippery foods that clump, or foods that are dry and hard. Experts also suggested avoiding foods that are round or in a shape that could conform to your toddler's windpipe (it's the size of a drinking straw in diameter), and get lodged there.
So what foods are considered safe snacks for toddlers? The AAP's Healthy Children recommended parents feed their toddlers fresh fruits that are thinly sliced, like bananas, apples, peaches, nectarines, and pears. For fruits like plums, grapes, or cherries, the AAP suggested pitting and "smushing" them, so that they are safer to eat. Another safe and healthy option is cooked and diced or mashed veggies like carrots, peas, cauliflower, potatoes, and broccoli.
Of course, no matter how careful you are about cutting the safest foods up into perfectly bite-sized pieces, there's always the risk that a toddler could choke (or an adult, for that matter). So what should you do in that situation? As per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): "If your child is having some breathing difficulties — but is still able to speak or has a strong cough — do nothing yourself; the child's cough is better than any back blows or abdominal thrusts (Heimlich maneuver) you can administer. But call 911 so that she can be transported to an emergency department, since a partial blockage of the airway could turn into a complete one."
If, on the other hand, your little one can't breathe at all, "appears pale or her cough is very weak," then you need to take action right away. Call 911 immediately, and perform the Heimlich maneuver. Other techniques for helping to clear your child's airway include the "tongue-jaw lift" and the "finger sweep," as the AAP's Healthy Children website continued:
"If the child is unconscious, lower her to the floor on her back and try using the tongue-jaw lift. Open the youngster's mouth, with your thumb held over her tongue, and your fingers wrapped around the lower jaw; as this draws the tongue away from the back of the throat, you may be able to clear the airway. If you can see the foreign object, try removing it with a sideways sweep of a finger; use this approach carefully, however, since it could push the object even farther down the airway, causing additional blockage."
All of this likely sounds overwhelming, and you might be considering taking an infant and child CPR course right about now (if you haven't already). But remember... like your grandmother (probably) said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
So along with the obvious choking hazards like small toys, buttons and batteries, you should keep foods like popcorn, nuts, seeds, grapes, and raw veggies out of reach for children under the age of 4. It’s better to be safe and wait until your child can truly enjoy these foods, and in the meantime, they can munch on safer treats.
Dr. Jarret Patton, pediatrician
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