When Can Toddlers Eat Popcorn? A Pediatrician Explains The Dangers

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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 perfect snack for any time or any place. But when your kids are younger, the thought of popcorn pieces getting stuck in their throat and teeth can be concerning. It seems like an easy snack, but when can toddlers eat popcorn?

Pediatrician Dr. Jarret Patton tells Romper in an interview 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. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), choking is the leading cause of injury in children, 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.

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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.

When my kids were toddlers, I always kept yogurt and avocados on hand for snacks. My kids loved soft bread with mashed avocado on top, sort of the kid version of avocado toast. For times when my family was on the go, I packed Cheerios or the kid friendly puff snacks to avoid messy hands and faces. And in the summertime, homemade popsicles were my go-to. The best part is that all these food are also listed as safe snacks for toddlers by the AAP.

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.

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