How to Recognise and Deal with Gagging in Babies/Toddlers

How to Recognise and Deal with Gagging in Babies/Toddlers

14 June 2021
Posted by: Chelsea

“Gagging” is a universally shared human experience.

It’s a hard-wired automatic reflex mechanism our brains and bodies have to try and protect us from consuming something that might be unsuitable or which risks becoming jammed in our airways.

In very young children, it’s important to avoid mistaking much more serious choking symptoms for the typically harmless gagging reflex.

A special message from Read2Grow – reading a brief overview of this type is no substitute for first-aid training focusing on younger children’s risks (e.g. Baby CPR), delivered by a professional. We always recommend that parents have such basic training – it may save a child’s life.

Gagging – what triggers it

In babies and toddler-age children, gagging usually indicates one of two things:

  • they have tasted and perhaps started to swallow, something they suddenly decide they don’t like due to its taste or texture;
  • they have something in their mouths or upper throat that their body decides it can’t handle. That is usually because it is too big or too harsh to swallow. It is commonly associated with switching from liquid to solid food, where the baby is learning what-is-what and how to eat or not eat things!

In the vast majority of cases, gagging is normal and harmless.

In adults, gagging can also be triggered automatically by memories, images or smells. It is unclear how many of these factors can also trigger gagging in very young infants and toddlers.

Gagging – symptoms

The symptoms of gagging should be near intuitive to all of us. They typically include:

  • the child often goes rather red in the face through effort. This is usually of very short duration;
  • their tongue will usually protrude;
  • he or she will make coughing and retching sounds that are usually again of very short duration, though there may be several of them over the course of a minute or so;
  • in between each “gag’”, the child should be seen to be breathing clearly and easily.

Warning signs of choking

Indications that the gagging is not routine and instead relates to choking might include:

  • if the gagging seems to be going on over some time and is not being ‘productive’;
  • no clear sounds or signs of breathing in the child or any such breathing is seemingly difficult/restricted;
  • facial discolouration is more severe and most commonly of a blue colour;
  • the baby seems very quiet or is making wheezy breathing sounds.

All these might be symptoms that your child has a partially or fully obstructed airway – i.e. is choking. This can be life-threatening.

In this situation, you will need to conduct emergency first-aid or find someone immediately available that can. We will not be discussing emergency first-aid for choking further in this article.

All the following discussions apply only to gagging.

Gagging – what to do

If your child starts to gag:

  • don’t panic. Remember, most gagging may look alarming but is usually harmless;
  • sit them upright and inclined very slightly forward – providing support for their body as you do so;
  • don’t interfere with nature, assuming your child is breathing normally and doesn’t appear too distressed. Let nature deal with the cause;
  • vomiting isn’t unusual – it’s also a good reassuring sign that the airways are not blocked;
  • NEVER put your fingers into the baby’s mouth while they’re gagging. If they are trying to clear an object, you risk pushing it further down into their throat.

Medical advice

You might wish to get professional medical advice if the gagging is:

  • happening very regularly and is severe;
  • frequently interfering with their ability to eat;
  • very frequent but not ‘productive’ in any way;
  • showing indications of blood in the product;
  • proving to be very distressing to the child;
  • is accompanied by other symptoms such as raised temperature, apparent pain, swellings around the mouth, throat or neck, unusual sleepiness and lethargy.

Be reassured that all our personnel are very familiar with the symptoms of gagging and the required first-aid!

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