Eating popcorn should be a snack for children over the age of 4.

What A Pediatrician Wants You To Know About Toddlers & Popcorn

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It’s not a great snack for little ones.

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Popcorn is one of my family’s favorite snacks, and we often make it for an afternoon treat or movie and game night at home. Fortunately, I no longer have to worry about it as a choking hazard now that my kids are older, but for toddlers eating popcorn, there are a few more concerns. It’s such an easy snack to make and is easy to take with you places (it’s also one of the most popular snacks at fun events or things to do), but how safe is it for your toddler to eat?

Why Is Popcorn A Choking Hazard?

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 under the age of 4. “Popcorn is one of the highest-risk choking hazard foods for little children. Unlike other high choking hazard foods, there is little you can do to make it any less dangerous,” Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, Chief Pediatrician at Blueberry Pediatrics says. “Toddlers do not have the ability to chew it well and handle the kernels, which can get lodged in their airways. As a popular food at birthday parties and during movies, it's very important families know to hold off on giving it to their little ones.”

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.

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On that note, the New York State Department of Health suggests 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 suggest avoiding foods that are round or in a shape that could conform to your toddler's windpipe and become lodged (for reference, your toddler’s windpipe is the size of a drinking straw in diameter).

So what foods are considered safe snacks for toddlers? The AAP's Healthy Children recommends parents feed their toddlers fresh fruits that are thinly sliced, like bananas, peaches, nectarines, and pears. For fruits like plums, grapes, or cherries, the AAP suggests pitting and "smushing" them, so that they are safer to eat. Another safe and healthy option is cooked or diced mashed veggies like carrots, peas, cauliflower, potatoes, and broccoli.

What To Do If Your Toddler Chokes On Food

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) that 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," per the AAP's Healthy Children website.

Sound overwhelming? Consider taking an infant and child CPR course (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, and raw veggies out of reach for children under the age of 4 since they’re harder to adapt into safe bites. It’s better to be safe and wait until your child can truly enjoy these foods.


Dr. Lyndsey Garbi, Chief Pediatrician at Blueberry Pediatrics

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