Following a warning from a coroner against giving babies “propped up” bottles after the death of a four-month-old baby boy it is worth reminding ourselves that choking is in fact one of the biggest causes of accidental death in the under 5s. 

Once parents understand the nature of the risk, they’re better equipped to take preventative measures. Here, we take a detailed look at why it’s such a serious risk for children.

Many of the preventable accidents that we highlight result in death, disability or serious injury. Some, like burns and scalds, can cause lifelong injuries but are rarely fatal. Sadly however, choking can often be fatal.

It sounds obvious, but is often overlooked, that children aren’t mini versions of adults. They differ in a myriad of ways, which makes them magical, but these differences can also put them at risk.

They’re smaller – in height and weight and inside! Their windpipes are narrower and still growing. This means that many small pieces of food which may seem okay could actually be dangerous to them.

Food and drink

At any age, food and drink are the most common causes of choking.

Even very young babies, before they start weaning, can choke while they’re drinking milk from a bottle. It can be very tempting to ‘prop-feed’ (propping your baby up with a bottle while you get on with something else), but if a baby starts to choke on their formula, they won’t be able to push the bottle away.

ACTION: Always stay with a baby when bottle-feeding

When babies start to wean from around six months onwards, they start to learn the very complex process of chewing and swallowing, which older children and adults take for granted. While they’re learning, they are at a high risk of choking.

Babies and young children can choke on food you think is quite soft and small, like a whole grape or a piece of hot dog. 

It’s a common misconception that a choking baby or child will cough and splutter. Like drowning, it is likely to be completely silent with no sound to warn that something is wrong.

ACTION: Always stay with a baby when they are eating or drinking

As toddlers, they’re still learning to chew and swallow, and can try even more foods. The additional risk factor with toddlers is that they’re prone to not sitting still while they eat. If they’re walking or running around with food in their mouths, they are at risk of choking - toddlers should be encouraged to sit still while they eat, even if it’s just a snack.

Toddlers shouldn’t be given hard-boiled sweets or peanuts. Peanuts contain an oil called aracus oil. If it’s inhaled, it can cause their windpipe to swell up, which could block it.

ACTION: Sit with toddlers while they eat to ensure that they sit still 

Other causes of choking

Once a baby has learned the skill of picking things up, their instinct is to put the object in their mouth. Anything that is smaller than the diameter of a two pence piece could get lodged in a child’s throat.

In addition to food, some of the most common choking hazards are coins, buttons, batteries, toys – or little bits from bigger toys – and balloons before they have been blown-up or when they have burst.

Parents should be aware of those ‘I didn’t know he could do that’ moments – babies ofen surprise their parents with their reaching and grabbing skills, and toddlers are still exploring taste and texture by putting things in their mouths.

ACTION: Keep small objects out of reach of babies and toddlers


Free resources on Facebook:

There’s been a great deal of debate on safer weaning and eating on CAPT’s Facebook page after we posted advice on the correct way to cut up grapes for babies and toddlers.

To help parents and carers who may be confused by conflicting advice, we compiled a quick guide written in plain English that covers the essentials of preventing a food-choking accident.

This essential one-pager is proving to be really popular with parents and practitioners. Check it out now on our Facebook page, and share with your friends, colleagues, networks etc.

While you’re there, don’t forget to like our page to ensure you don’t miss any future child safety posts.

Alternatively, you’re welcome to print off hard copies to hand to parents of babies and toddlers – simply open the image on Facebook, scroll over the image and click ‘Options’ then ‘Download’.


More information

If you work with parents the following resources can really help in terms of raising awareness of choking hazards and prevention.

There is further information on choking hazards split by age group within our safety advice section of the website.