Does Your Baby or Young Child Gag While Eating Solid Foods?

She could be a picky eater or she might have a medical problem

Boy eating with a fork and making a face
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Your toddler gags on anything but baby food. Your preschooler prefers to drink her meals and gags on anything with chunks in it. Sometimes she throws up.

Do you have a picky eater, or a child with a hidden medical problem?

Some children have difficulty learning the physical actions needed to eat solid foods, and simply take longer than their peers to get the hang of it. While they're learning, they may resist solid foods or gag on them.

On the other hand, young children may have a physical difference in the mouth, tongue, or throat that prevents them from swallowing normally. They struggle with the muscle coordination necessary to chew and swallow without choking or gagging.

First Stop: Your Pediatrician

To be ready for solid foods, your baby needs to be able to hold her head up, open her mouth for the spoon, and physically move the food from the front to the back of her mouth.

The ages that babies can accomplish these tasks will vary, which is why pediatricians urge parents to move slowly on solid food. If you take cues from your baby (Is she reaching for the food? Is he big enough to sit upright?), then you'll be more likely to start solids on a schedule that suits your baby.

However, if you're concerned after trying solid foods that your child may have a feeding problem, or if your child suddenly starts gagging when eating solid foods, you should start with a call or a visit to your pediatrician.

The pediatrician can determine if there really is an issue.

Possible Reasons for Gagging While Eating

Swallowing is actually a fairly complicated process, and gagging while eating can indicate a problem somewhere in this process, or in overall development. Specifically, some possible causes of gagging on solid foods include:

  • Swollen Tonsils or Adenoids – Children who have chronic swelling in their throats may find it difficult or painful to swallow.
  • Gastroesophagel Reflux Disease (GERD) – Some children with GERD may swallow food only to find it coming right back up. Others may have swollen tonsils or an inflamed throat from chronic reflux.
  • Sensory Processing Disorder – Gagging can be an indicator of a rejection of a food. Some children with SPD will gag on food with a texture they don’t like.
  • Low Muscle Tone – Children with low muscle tone (a symptom of some developmental disorders) may not have the muscle strength and coordination to move food around in their mouth and swallow properly.

What If There Is a Problem?

If your pediatrician diagnoses a feeding problem, there are numerous possible steps to help solve the problem. For example, children with GERD may need medication to calm their reflux and prevent the gagging.

If the problem involves a sensory processing disorder or low muscle tone, your pediatrician may refer you to a physical or occupational therapist.

These therapists can help your child to improve oral muscle coordination and feeding skills.

More About Picky Eaters and Medical Problems

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. Switching to Solid Food fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 10, 2015.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Feeding and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia) in Children fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 10, 2015.

Ernsperger, Lori, Ph.D. and Tania Stegen-Hanson, OTR/L. Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges. Future Horizons, Arlington, TX.

North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. Hepatitis B Vaccine. Accessed online 1/14/2011. http://www.naspghan.org/user-assets/Documents/pdf/diseaseInfo/2008%20Revisions/Hepatitis%20B%20-%20Reviewed%20August%202008.pdf

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