My Toddler Choked On An Apple

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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When my first son was about 18 months old, we were at a breastfeeding support group one afternoon. It was being held at someone’s home and we had been there many times before. As usual, there was an assortment of kid-friendly food out for the taking, and I didn’t think anything of it when I noticed my son munching on a few slices of apple.

Actually, I was really happy that he was eating the apple slices, because he was a very picky eater and anything healthy that he wanted to consume was welcome. And boy was he going to town on those apple slices, standing right at the table in front of the bowl of apples and eating one after another in rapid succession.

“Wow, this kid’s super hungry,” I thought, as I continued chatting with my friends about when the heck our nursing toddlers were going to sleep through the night and whatnot.

Wendy Wisner

Suddenly, my son started coughing loudly and crying. It occurred to me that he might be choking, but there had been a few times where something seemed stuck and he kind of coughed it down.

Not this time. The coughing continued but it seemed strained. And he seemed short of breath. There was a look of terror in his eyes and I knew that something was very wrong. Confused and shocked, I didn’t know what exactly was going on or what to do.

Thankfully, one of my friends came to the rescue. “Flip him over onto your leg,” she told me. “And then pound his back.”

Quickly, and as if in a dream (or a nightmare), I did exactly what she said. I can still feel his tiny little body slung over my leg. I can feel his strained breaths. And I can hear his cries, because clearly he was as confused and terrified as I was.

I kept pounding away, not even really sure of what I was doing, or where exactly to apply the pressure. But I must have done something right, because just as soon as the whole event started, it was over.

I heard a small pop, saw mushed up apple all over the carpet, and my son stood up. He coughed one more time, opened his mouth, and out plopped a hard piece of an apple slice – the culprit. He let out one more big cry, and then grinned happily at me.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relieved in my life. I pulled him onto my lap. “Are you okay?” I asked, stroking his sweet toddler cheek and inhaling the top of his perfect little head.

“I okay,” he responded in toddler-speak, trying to squirm off my lap, his eyes right back on that bowl of apples…of course!

My friend was already in the process of removing the apples from the table by then, and that’s when huge waves of guilt began pouring over me.

“How could I be so stupid?” I said. “The kid was shoveling those apples down his throat. I should have known.”

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After a ton of encouraging words from the other mothers in the room, I asked my other friend – the one who had instructed me on how to dislodge the apple from his throat – how she had known what to do.

“Oh, I took infant and child CPR a few months ago,” she said. “And I actually had to use it last week, when my 6-year-old almost choked on a piece of hard candy. I’d thought we were past that stage!”

That 18-month-old toddler of mine is now almost 13 years-old, and while the incident happened over a decade ago, it’s one of those moments of motherhood that you never forget – the fear and guilt over what happened still lives in your bones.

One of the confusing aspects of my son’s near choking story is that I had no idea sliced apples were a choking hazard for toddlers. I definitely knew about not giving your child small round fruits and veggies, like grapes and cherry tomatoes. But I knew the answer was to slice those to make them safe. And I thought the same was true of apples — after all, he’d been eating carefully sliced apples.

However, it turns out that hard apples, especially with the skin still on them, are a choking hazard for young children. They are not listed on choking hazard lists as frequently as hot dogs, popcorn, and grapes are. But they are a hazard nonetheless.

For example, in a 2010 article, The New York Times lists them among the top 10 choking hazards for kids. And Seattle Children’s Hospital writes that any hard fruits with peels are a potential choking hazard.

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I think with everything else, it makes sense to familiarize yourself with the rules, watch your child like a hawk, and use common sense. But perhaps the most important thing of all is to know what to do in any emergency.

Dr. Tuan Nguyen, a Pediatric Intensivist at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center, tells Scary Mommy that first and foremost, all parents of young kiddos should take infant and child CPR.

“It’s a good idea to learn infant and child CPR because they’ll teach you how to deal with a choking episode and how to position them to clear their airway,” says Dr. Nguyen.

“If you don’t know CPR, the next important thing is to call 911 so help can come,” she added.

Dr. Nguyen says that in addition to food choking hazards, parents need to familiarize themselves with non-food hazards. According to the Academy of American Pediatrics, over 50% of choking cases involve kids choking on food. However, a 2019 study found that the incidences of kids choking on foreign-body ingestions (FBIs) increased by a whopping 91.5% from 1995 to 2015. Yikes!

According to the study, coins topped the list of most frequently swallowed foreign objects, followed by small toys, jewelry, and batteries. However, according to Dr. Nguyen, button batteries may pose the biggest risk.

“I’m most concerned about button batteries because it can be caustic to the throat and intestinal tract, so it can burn if it gets stuck in there,” she told Scary Mommy. “In that case, it’s an emergency and it would need to be removed.” Toys like “bulkyballs” are also an major issue, says. Dr. Nguyen, as they can get stuck in the intestines and cause intestinal perforation.

This is some super scary stuff, huh?

While none is this is meant to cause us to live in a state of fear, it totally makes sense to learn all you can about potential choking hazards, and keep them away from your kids whenever possible. Oh, and definitely sign up for an infant and child CPR class.

I ended up taking infant and child CPR soon after my son’s choking incident. Luckily, I never had to use what I learned in that class again on either of my kids or anyone else’s kids, but knowing exactly what to do should I ever be faced with a choking child again was really comforting.

So go ahead and sign up for CPR if you haven’t already. Most classes are only between $20-$40, and The Red Cross even offers classes online. No real excuses here, folks. And you never know – you might just save a life.

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