I’m sure everyone has had that freak out moment, when starting solids, of your baby gagging? What did you do? Did you rush over and slap them on the back? Stick your finger in their mouth to remove the piece of food? Or did you calmly sit and watch to see if your baby could clear the food themselves? When we see a baby gag, our first thought is that she must be in danger of choking. However, that is why we have the gag reflex, to push food away from the opening to the throat thus preventing it obstructing the airways or choking.
This reflex is present in us all, but in babies it is slightly different. The positioning in an infant is a lot closer to the tip of the tongue (nearly halfway) than in an adult, therefore triggering the response a lot sooner. As infants age it gradually moves back along the tongue until it sits closer to the back of the throat more in line with its final adult positioning. Therefore the earlier self feeding is introduced the better, because as the baby ages the early warning signs of gagging become less, as they are outgrowing the tendency due to the gag reflex getting closer to the opening of the airways.
Let’s put this knowledge into a baby led weaning situation. A baby puts a piece of cucumber in its mouth, pushes it around a bit with his tongue and then if it’s too big to swallow, it gets pushed back out by the gag reflex ready to try again. A few tries and he’s successful. What a great lesson for bubs, next time he won’t push his food so far back or he will chew it down to a more manageable size to swallow. Then before you know it, he is eating unassisted and in complete control.
The one thing to note in the above scenario is that the baby put the food in his mouth himself. This is important because he then becomes more aware as to where his gag reflex is and how far he can push food back. In contrast, if someone else puts the food in for him, they may push it OVER his gag reflex, which then increases the chances of him choking because it has taken away his safety mechanism. This also goes for spoon-feeding. When a spoon is pushed into a baby’s mouth the likelihood of it going over the gag reflex is increased and therefore increases the danger of the gag reflex not kicking in. Babies also tend to suck food off a spoon instead of chewing or biting it off which sends the food straight to the back of the throat, which may then result in gagging or ‘choking’ more easily.
The next time you see your baby gag don’t be worried, because we now know that the gag reflex is doing its job and your baby is learning the necessary skills to become a self-sufficient feeder. As long as he is putting the food in his mouth himself and he is sitting in an upright position the gagging safety mechanism will work effectively and you will have no cause for alarm.