At around 6 months of age, parents can begin introducing solid foods to their babies. This is an important step to help them learn new tastes and textures, get nutrients and develop healthy eating habits.
By the time babies are 9 months old, they will have developed the fine motor skills — the small, precise movements — needed to pick up small pieces of food and feed themselves.
With these new skills, babies can start practicing self-feeding — but parents need to stay alert about possible choking hazards. Here, CHOC experts offer tips to prevent choking hazards and foods to stay away from.
Why self-feeding is important
You may notice that your baby can take hold of food (and other small objects) between their forefinger and thumb in a pincer grasp. The pincer grasp may start out a little clumsy, but with practice soon becomes a real skill.
Let your child self-feed as much as possible. You’ll still help by spoon feeding cereal and other important dietary elements. But encouraging finger feeding helps your child develop independent, healthy eating habits.
Finger feeding — and later, using utensils — gives babies some control over what they eat and how much. Sometimes they’ll eat the food, sometimes not, and that’s all part of the process of learning self-regulation. Even little kids can tell when they’re hungry or full, and finger feeding can help them learn to recognize and respond to these cues.
How to prevent choking when your baby is eating finger foods
When your baby is self-feeding with finger foods, it’s important to keep a close eye on them to ensure their safety. Here are some mealtime strategies to help prevent your child from choking:
- Have your child sit in a highchair or other safe place while eating.
- Prevent your child from lying down, crawling or walking while eating. Make sure they are sitting up.
- Avoid letting your child eat in the car or stroller.
- Keep mealtimes calm. Avoid distractions, disruptions and rushing when eating.
- Always pay close attention to what your child puts in their mouth.
- Watch your child at all times while they are eating.
What should my 6- to 12-month-old baby eat?
Although it means more work for whoever makes the meals for the family, dishes often can be adapted for the baby. For instance, your little one can have some of the zucchini you’re making for dinner. Cook that serving a bit longer — until it’s soft — and cut it into pieces small enough for the baby to handle. Pieces of ripe banana, well-cooked pasta and small pieces of chicken are other good choices.
To determine if a food item is suitable for your baby, try a bite first and ask yourself:
- Does it melt in the mouth? Some dry cereals and crackers that are light and flaky will melt in the mouth.
- Is it cooked enough so that it mushes easily? Well-cooked veggies and fruits will mush easily, as will canned fruit and vegetables (choose ones without added sugar or salt).
- Is it soft? Cottage cheese, shredded cheese and small pieces of tofu are good examples.
- Can it be gummed? Pieces of ripe banana and well-cooked pasta can be easily mashed in the gums of your baby.
- Is it small enough? Food should be cut into small pieces. The sizes will vary depending on the food’s texture. A piece of chicken, for instance, needs to be smaller than a piece of watermelon, which even a pair of baby gums will quickly smash.
If your child doesn’t like a kind of food, don’t let that stop you from offering it at future meals. Kids are naturally slow to accept new tastes and textures. For example, some are more sensitive to texture and may reject coarse foods, such as meat. When introducing meat, it’s helpful to start with well-cooked ground meats or shreds of thinly sliced deli meats, such as turkey.
Present your baby with a variety of foods, even some that he or she didn’t seem to like the week before. Don’t force your baby to eat, but realize that it can take 10 or more tries before a child will accept a new food.
Choking hazards for babies to avoid
There are specific types of food that should be avoided when feeding your baby. Foods that are potential choking hazards include:
- Pieces of raw vegetables or hard fruits.
- Whole grapes, berries, cherry or grape tomatoes. Instead, peel and slice or cut in quarters.
- Raisins and other dried fruit.
- Peanuts, nuts and seeds.
- Large scoops of peanut butter and other nut or seed butters. A thin layer is OK though.
- Whole hot dogs and sausages. Peel and cut these into very small pieces.
- Untoasted bread, especially white bread that sticks together
- Chunks of cheese or meat.
- Candy, such as hard candy, jellybeans, gummies and chewing gum.
- Popcorn, pretzels, corn chips and other snack foods.
These foods aren’t safe and may cause your child to choke. Many healthcare providers suggest these foods be saved until after your child is age 3 or 4.
The same way your baby can pick up food with their pincher grasp, they may also try to pick up and eat small items around your house. Pick up anything off the floor that might be dangerous to swallow, like deflated balloons, pen caps, coins, beads and batteries. Make sure to keep toys or gadgets with small parts out of reach.
What to do if your baby begins choking
Parents should call 911 for any serious choking situation.
There are several possible situations you might face if your baby begins choking. Here are some tips on how to handle them:
If your baby is choking and coughing but can breathe and make sounds:
Fortunately, this means the airway is not completely blocked. It’s best to do nothing. Watch the child carefully and make sure they recover completely. The child will likely be fine after a good coughing spell.
Don’t reach into the mouth to grab the object or even pat the child on the back. Either of these steps could push the object farther down the airway and make the situation worse.
Stay with the child and remain calm until the episode passes.
If your baby is conscious but can’t breathe, make noise or is turning blue:
Call 911 or tell someone nearby to call 911 immediately. This situation calls for abdominal thrusts if you’ve been trained to do so. If you haven’t been trained, and no one else is available who has been, wait until help arrives.
If the child was choking and is now unconscious and no longer breathing:
Shout for help and call 911, or tell someone nearby to call 911 immediately.
Start CPR right away, if you’ve been trained in it. If you have not been trained, and no one else is available who has been, wait until help arrives.
CPR and first-aid courses are a must for parents, other caregivers and babysitters. To find one in your area, contact your local American Red Cross, YMCA, American Heart Association chapter or other community resources.
For more safety tips from CHOC experts