No discussion about what goes into a baby could be complete without a discussion of gagging. Parents universally freak out when their babies gag— that’s just part of the job description. But it’s actually a very natural reaction as your baby learns to eat. Here’s why your baby generates this frightening response to food:

  • Gagging because they don’t know what else to do. All babies gag from time to time. It’s what you do when you’re nine months old and you don’t know what to do with that itty-bitty fibre strand in your overcooked zucchini. It’s part of the natural process of learning how to manipulate and swallow foods of different sizes and textures.
  • Gagging to protect the windpipe. While gagging may look like a life-threatening event, it’s actually a sophisticated safeguard designed to keep food from dropping into the windpipe where it really would constitute a life-threatening event. Should food or milk head the wrong direction toward the airway, the muscles of the pharynx intervene and force that food back from where it came. So as hard as it may be, try to think of gagging as your friend. Or your baby’s friend.
  • Choking is what gagging is trying to prevent. If gagging is the protective reflex, choking is what that reflex is trying to prevent. True choking is what happens when food actually gets into the airway and causes a critical blockage of air. The hallmark of the choking child is the silent absence of noise and airflow. It’s unmistakable. Since air can neither move in or out, the child will appear frozen and terrified. As opposed to many of the things that parents get excited about, this truly constitutes an emergency. Fortunately, true choking is a rare event.

Gagging with food should be a rare thing with your baby. If it isn’t, your first stop needs to be with your paediatrician, so that he or she can have a look- see.

What to do if your baby gags when you advance textures

Beyond the occasional event, consistent gagging, especially when advancing textures, can mean your baby has an underlying problem.

One of the most common reasons for regular gagging is what’s called a sensory aversion. This is a kind of baby panic attack experienced when faced with an unknown mouth situation. Remember that knowing what to do with your mouth and tongue when experiencing lumps and bumps in food takes some practice. If a baby hasn’t sorted out what to do with those lumps and bumps by late in the first year, they’ll be rejected with a panicky gag.

The baby’s impulse here is to get the food out of her mouth because it’s weird, foreign, and potentially threatening. And each time we retry the same texture and elicit the same ugly gag, the baby, her brain, and her mouth sensors become experienced. This causes an earlier and more intense reaction with the next spoonful.

If this type of consistent gagging response isn’t addressed, your baby will have a hard time handling the texture in question. This is a situation where a baby needs a formal assessment by a speech pathologist or occupational therapist experienced in infant feeding.

Usually a gagging problem improves with therapy, but this can take weeks to months to turn around.

Extract taken from Looking out for Number Two by Bryan Vartabedian, published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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