How to protect children under 5 from the risk of choking and suffocation

by | Aug 5, 2020 | Home Safety

Do you knot your plastic bags when you bring fruit and veg home from the supermarket?

After a birthday party, do you pick up all the broken balloons?

Do the kids run around the backyard while they eat a bunch of grapes? 

Common household objects like plastic bags, balloons and grapes can cause choking or suffocation and the vast majority are children under the age of 5. In 2013, 25 Australian children aged 0-14 years died of accidental injury due to choking or suffocation and of those 92% were under the age of five. 

Why children under the age of 5 are at risk of choking and suffocation

Both choking and suffocation occurs when there is a blockage to the supply of a child’s oxygen resulting in a lack of oxygen to the brain, resulting in brain damage or worse, death.  

Choking is caused by an object blocking the child’s airway. 

Suffocation is caused by their mouth and nose being covered. 

Young children (under 5 years) are particularly at risk as they have smaller airways. In the case of babies, they can’t turn their heads easily if their breathing is obstructed and as they move into toddlerhood, they tend to explore a lot of foreign objects with their mouths. Even food is a risk factor until their back teeth have developed and they can chew properly.  

Food is the most common cause of choking in children

Across all age groups food is the most common cause of choking. Risk factors increase when hard foods are given to a child too early or children are allowed to eat while they are moving or playing.  
Hard foods include: raw carrot, raw apple pieces, grapes, nuts, chicken and fish bones and lollies. 

  • It is essential for small children to have supervised, quiet eating time 
  • Never force a child to eat when they are upset 
  • Slowly introduce your child to hard foods and remove tough skins so that your child can manage them. 
  • Grating or mashing hard food is helpful

Hazardous objects that can cause choking in children under the age of 5

Children are particularly curious and nearly all children who choke on non-food items are under five years of age. Some of these common household objects are hazardous because they are not only a choking risk, but button batteries in particular have catastrophic effects if they are successfully swallowed. See more about button batteries here 

Hazardous objects include: button batteries, coins, pen tops and toys that contain small parts or pieces that can break off easily. 

  • Regularly check your child’s play area by getting down low to the ground to see what they see. 
  • Toys should be suitable for the child’s age and development.  
  • We recommend separate play areas for children of different ages.  
  • Balloons are a choking risk in small children; either un-inflated balloons or broken pieces 

Common causes of suffocation in children under the age of 5

Suffocation in young children under the age of 5 occurs most commonly when sleeping – either in a cot, co-sleeping or being carried incorrectly in a baby sling. Safe sleeping and safety guides for slings help minimise the risks. (links) 
Other risks of suffocation around the house include:

  • Thin plastic bags, plastic wrap and dry-cleaning bags are particularly dangerous because children pull them over their heads. Keep them out of reach and knot your plastic bags if you’re keeping them. 
  • Remove the plastic wrapping from cot or bassinet mattresses – these are not suitable as mattress protectors
  • Pillows and cot bumpers are not recommended for children under the age of two.
  • Choosing a firm mattress which is the right size for the cot is critical in preventing unintentional suffocation or SIDS 
  • Avoid sleeping babies and young children on soft surfaces like bean bags or water beds as they can suffocate on them

Need some advice? 

Kidsafe Qld’s mission is to provide evidence-based practical advice to empower parents and caregivers to make informed choices to prevent childhood injuries. We are at your service and welcome any questions you might have around injury prevention and keeping kids safe at home, on the road and at play. 
Call Kidsafe Qld: 3854 1829 

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