What To Do if a Child is Choking

Children's Health

Dec 5, 2022


Choking can be a life-threatening situation even for caregivers who know how exactly to respond — wondering what to do if a child is choking? The pediatric emergency care professionals at Complete Care are here to explain. Keep in mind, there are different choking first aid procedures for helping a choking infant and a child who is one year old or older, so it’s best to be aware of the methods for both age groups. 

Generally, if your child is choking, give up to five back blows before moving on to abdominal thrusts. If you’re dealing with a choking infant, deliver back blows and chest thrusts. Call 911 if these methods don’t seem to work.

How to help a choking child (ages 1+)

If you notice that your child cannot make noise, speak, or breathe, follow these steps.

Step 1: Determine what they are choking on

  • What to do if a child is choking on water: If your child is choking on water or any other liquid, try to get them to cough. Typically, a child who is choking on water can clear the airway themselves. If your child cannot cough, proceed to step 2.
  • What to do if a child is choking on food: If your child is choking on food or another object, DO NOT try to stick your finger into their mouth as they could bite you accidentally or you could cause the object to move farther down their throat. Proceed to step 2 immediately. 

Step 2: Deliver up to five back blows

Turn your child around and hit them firmly between the shoulder blades up to five times. Back blows create pressure in the airway which can dislodge any objects caught in the child’s airway. If the object does not come out or your child still cannot cough or breathe, continue to step 3.  

Step 3: Deliver up to five abdominal thrusts 

Abdominal thrusts, also known as the Heimlich maneuver, help to squeeze air out of the lungs and dislodge any objects or liquids that may be caught. Here is how to do the Heimlich on a child:

  • Stand or kneel behind your child depending on their height.
  • Wrap your arms around their waist and tip them slightly forward to let gravity aid you.
  • Make a fist with one hand (preferably your dominant hand) and place it at their navel. Cover that first with your other hand. 
  • Press into their abdomen and quickly thrust upwards with your hands five times, as if you were trying to lift them up.
  • Repeat this cycle if the object is not dislodged or the child still can’t breathe or cough.

If your child becomes unresponsive or is still choking after delivering these steps, call 911 and continue to perform the Heimlich until help arrives. The Heimlich is only appropriate for children ages one and older.

How to help a choking infant

Infants’ bodies are too small for a caregiver to administer abdominal thrusts properly, which is why there is a different choking first aid procedure for helping a choking infant. If you notice that your baby cannot make noise, cannot cry, or cannot breathe, begin the following steps.

Step 1: Position the baby face-down

Hold the baby face-down on your forearm or your thigh and support their head. You want to ensure that the baby’s head is lower than their bottom so gravity can assist you.

Step 2: Deliver up to five back blows

Hit the infant firmly between the shoulder blades up to five times. Back blows create pressure in the airway which can dislodge any objects caught in the baby’s airway.

If the object does not come out, continue on to step 3. 

Step 3: Deliver up to 5 chest thrusts

Flip the baby over so their chest is facing you. Take two fingers (typically your pointer and ring fingers), place them on the baby’s chest, and press downwards five times. Continue steps 1-3 until the object is removed from the baby’s airway. If you see no progress or the infant becomes unresponsive, call 911. Keep repeating the steps until help arrives. 

Here are some important notes to remember if you are helping a choking infant:

  • Be gentler with smaller infants and more aggressive with larger infants. The back blows need to be impactful to open the airway but use caution depending on the infant’s size.
  • NEVER perform the Heimlich maneuver on a child that is younger than 12 months old. It’s not possible due to the infant’s small size and could potentially damage their organs.
  • If your baby is choking on an object, DO NOT stick your fingers in their mouth if you can’t see the object. This can cause them to choke as you risk pushing the object further into their airway. Remember that babies often choke on liquids such as milk or their own mucus and this may not be cause for intervention until you notice that they cannot breathe or make sounds.

Knowing what to do if a child is choking can save lives

As a parent, seeing your child having difficulty breathing can be terrifying, but if you are prepared for what to do if a child is choking, you can spring into action. Calling 911 as soon as possible is your best chance for help if regular choking first aid doesn’t seem to be helping or you need someone to walk you through the steps.

Children, especially younger children, are more susceptible to choking on small objects, food, and items that don’t belong in their mouths. Knowing what to do if a child eats something toxic, what to do if your child has an allergic reaction, or how to handle food poisoning in children can help to keep your children out of danger. If you have any questions about any of these scary scenarios, the emergency medical staff from Complete Care is here to help.

More Helpful Articles by Complete Care: