One of the hardest things to watch is a baby gagging on food. Our instinct is to react with alarm and immediately intervene. (Which, by the way, can actually make the situation worse.)
When it comes to babies who are self-feeding or baby-led weaning styles of introducing solids, gagging is common and normal. And may actually be good.
The truth is that babies are going to gag as they practice moving food around in their mouths—it’s an inevitable part of learning to eat and importantly, is *not* the same as choking.
Let’s distinguish the difference between gagging and choking. True choking is when the airway is obstructed and your baby is having trouble breathing. Signs of a baby choking include an inability to cry, difficulty breathing, lungs pulling inward, high-pitched sounds, or turning blue. If you suspect your baby is choking, call 911 immediately and conduct age-appropriate CPR.
Gagging, however, is a protective reflex that results in the contraction of the back of the throat. It is a natural function and protects us from choking. When this happens, it’s important to let your baby work the food forward on their own and to refrain from sticking your finger in your baby’s mouth, which can make the situation worse.
Interestingly, the gag reflex of a 6 to 10 month old baby is much further forward on tongue than that of an adult.1 Because it is so far forward on the tongue, a baby’s gag reflex is triggered easily. It is not uncommon for babies to gag (or occasionally vomit) for the first few weeks of solids, though if your baby is repeatedly gagging and vomiting past the first month of starting solids, it would be wise to consult your pediatrician who may refer you to an occupational feeding therapist.
All babies gag in their eating journey—it’s one of the ways they learn how to eat. And babies who were started on smooth purées may actually gag for a longer period of time than babies who started on textured solid food from the get go. The good news? Know that this reflex is a protective one and that your baby will outgrow it after a couple of months of practice with textured foods.