Your baby gagging can be terrifying. Learn about the gag reflex in babies and what to do when babies have a sensitive reflex and gag on food or their bottle.
It’s a terrifying moment as a parent.
You know the one, because we’ve all been there, if only fleetingly.
It often happens as your baby is learning to eat.
They’ve taken a piece of food into their mouth, and we sit watching with big (sometimes fake) smiles on our face as if to offer encouragement. We watch closely, wondering if our little babe can pull off swallowing safely, and suddenly there’s a split second of silence. Their eyes pop out of their heads, they lunge forward, and they gag.
In that same split second, your heart is thumping so hard in your chest it feels like it’s going to bust through. You also leap forward unsure of what you should even be doing. Your baby gags again and again. Something must be done, so you try to get that overcooked little piece of carrot out of their mouth. You succeed, collapsing into the chair, and pull the food away from your baby because, well, you need a second.
As you sit there, arms still twitching, as the adrenaline slowly dissipates, you wonder, “Is that normal?”
Or, as is the case for some babies, the baby gagging has become all too frequent, and you just don’t know how to stop it from happening.
That is just one of many instances that can play out in our homes with baby gagging. And, to be perfectly honest, sometimes it’s completely normal for a baby to gag as they’re learning to eat or on the nipple of their bottle.
And, sometimes it’s not.
To ease your fragile parent heart (I’ve got one too), we’re going to cover what the baby gag reflex is, when you need to worry about baby gagging, how to decrease baby gagging, and more! You’ll also find more tips in My Baby Won’t Eat Solids and How to Transition to Table Foods.
The Baby Gag Reflex
Believe it or not, babies are designed to gag on objects entering their mouth from the moment they come out of the womb. It’s a real reflex that’s there to protect them from actually choking on something, because as new infants, they have no skills to get an unexpected item out of their mouth.
This baby gag reflex is a very good thing.
When babies are first born, and for the first few months of life, this gag reflex is very sensitive and is triggered very easily. Meaning, something doesn’t have to get very far into a babies mouth to prompt the gag reflex and cause them to gag. (Find a total guide on Feeding Milestones.)
As they grow, get bigger, and start to put random objects into their mouth, their gag reflex moves further back in their mouth. The baby gag reflex becomes less sensitive, harder to elicit.
This is also a very good thing because it’s around the time babies learn to start eating real food. It would be very hard to eat if that gag reflex was still sensitive, which of course is the case some of the time…
A Sensitive Gag Reflex in Babies
Some babies seem to have a hyper-sensitive gag reflex, and this may be apparent very early on as bottles are introduced. You may be reading this right now because your baby consistently gags on a bottle.
This is even more likely for babies that are exclusively breastfed because they aren’t used to the feeling and texture of a bottle. The nipple may be bigger or go into their mouth further and trigger the baby gag reflex. Read tips here for getting a baby to take a bottle.
Other babies do just fine with bottles and nursing, but as in the example I started with, they frequently gag when trying to eat foods. Sometimes making it impossible for them to eat. This often occurs because the gag reflex is still too far forward in their mouth.
When Does Baby Gagging Occur
As I mentioned earlier, it is normal for all babies to gag sometimes. That gag reflex is present, and even if it isn’t that sensitive, you’re likely to see it happen on occasion. Let’s take a closer look at the times that will most likely be:
Baby Gags on Bottle
Some, not all, babies will gag when a bottle is put into their mouth because it goes a little too far back or the texture of the nipple feels a little different to them. Although it can be disconcerting, it’s typical behavior from an infant if it doesn’t happen all that often.
Baby Gags When Mouthing Toys
It’s even more common to see your baby gag when they are beginning to put teethers, various toys, and the keys they dug out of your purse into their mouth. They are literally desensitizing and moving that baby gag reflex further back into their mouth. Your baby is priming the pump for food usually weeks or months before they ever take a bite of food. (Read more about how to start feeding baby.)
Babies that chew on a lot of toys typically don’t have a sensitive gag reflex.
Baby Gagging on Food
Nearly all babies gag on food at some point. Eating is a highly coordinated event that we take for granted because it’s old hat.
Most babies will gag on foods because they are either too thick, as in the case with pureed baby food, and they have difficulty moving it back to swallow properly. Or, if they’re eating table foods, they may lose track of the food and it hits their gag reflex before they can get it in place to swallow correctly.
Again, this is a good thing, because if a piece of food haphazardly hits the back of the tongue and slides down their throat, there is a much higher likelihood that they could choke or aspirate on it (that’s when food goes into the lungs instead of the stomach, not a good thing). The gag helps project the food they lost track of out of their mouth, keeping them safe.
When baby gagging is excessive, there is likely one of two causes:
- A baby’s ability to move their tongue and jaws around together to eat efficiently are called their oral motor skills. When their oral motor skills aren’t coordinated or the muscles like their tongue are weak, it’s very difficult to chew and swallow. If your baby gags AFTER trying to eat food, this is likely the cause. (Read more in oral motor exercises)
- If a baby gags instantly after food touches their tongue, or perhaps just from looking at food, it’s a very good indicator that they are sensitive to the texture of the food. This is related to their sensory system and how their brain is understanding what the texture will feel like. (Read more in sensory issues with food)
Lastly, there is one factor that DOES NOT affect baby gagging on food, and that’s if your baby has teeth or not. It’s a popular misconception that babies need teeth to eat. They do not.
The first and only teeth that most babies typically have for months are their front teeth, which are not used for chewing. The front teeth are used to bite off pieces of larger foods, and most babies are eating small pieces of food.
But, even if your baby is taking bites off of food, their gums are strong enough to do the job.
Some babies won’t get any teeth until after their first birthday, waiting until then could lead to a whole host of feeding problems. The moral of this story is not to worry about your baby eating or gagging on food if they don’t have teeth yet.
If you’re concerned about when what to give what foods, that’s a valid question and there are some guidelines to follow, which help decrease gagging. Check out When can babies eat cheerios to find the top foods that parents have questions about!
Grab a seat to learn about other feeding mistakes that parents are often told in my free online workshop. You’ll learn what to avoid so that your baby gets over gagging and on to eating table foods. I’ll send the link right to your inbox:
Click here to get a seat in 5 Big Feeding Mistakes that are Stopping Your Baby/Toddler from Learning to Eat
How to Respond to a Baby Gagging
It’s very easy to respond to your baby gagging with hysterics or even concern, because it’s scary. But, our response, even just once, can really leave an impression on a baby. At these early ages, our babies watch our reactions constantly and may learn from them. They can pick up on how we’re feeling and the last thing we want them to do is link the danger feeling they’re sensing as related to eating.
It can become ingrained in them quite quickly that eating is a bad thing, even though they aren’t able to articulate that.
When your baby does gag, appear calm and reassuring. Even act like its not a big deal. If you have to fake it, goodness knows I have many times, even slapping a smile on my face as I say, “You’re okay, would you like a drink?”
If your baby continues to gag on food in their mouth, then gently lean them forward. This will either help the food fall out of their mouth or bring the food to the front of their mouth, so they can swallow it safely.
If they still continue to gag, make a hook with your pinky finger and put in to one side of their mouth and sweep it to the other side, sweeping any food out. You may have to do this a few times.
How to Decrease Baby Gagging
Yes, there are actually some steps you can take to help decrease baby gagging!
For Baby Gagging on a Bottle:
You’ll want to try small nipples and experiment with different flows. Some babies may gag because the milk is taking too long to come out and other’s because it’s way too fast for them to manage.
Also, make sure baby is in a semi upright position and that their head isn’t tipped too far back. Put the nipple to their lips first and let them feel it for a second. Then, slowly put it into their mouth.
If the gagging still continues, use a pacifier or your pinky finger to rub on their gums and the sides of their tongue three to four times a day to help desensitize the sensitive gag reflex.
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For Babies Gagging on Food:
Make sure they have tons of opportunities to chew on teethers, safe toys, and even large pieces of whole foods they can’t get pieces off of. Think about a whole raw carrot or stalk of celery (if they can get pieces of it off, most can’t, then don’t use it). If they don’t seem interested, demonstrate and show them. This two pronged teether is one of my favorites because it reaches just far enough into their mouth and really works at desensitizing.
I also love vibrating teethers, because they vibrate and give lots of sensory input when they bite down. I used this one with all my kids.
You can also brush your child’s teeth, or rather their gums, and the sides of their tongue. Allow them to hold and bite on the toothbrush. This is a perfect little toothbrush for babies. The teeth/gum brushing also works to desensitize the gag reflex, improve oral motor skills, and improve sensory processing!
Read more here on how to teach your baby to eat finger foods. These steps will also be helpful to decrease gagging.
When Do You Need to Worry About Baby Gagging
First of all, it’s very important to know that baby gagging is different than a baby choking. Choking means something is already in their throat and they can’t get it out. Gagging is something in their mouth, or even nothing in their mouth, if they are just put off by a texture of food.
Many of us gag when we smell something absolutely putrid, some babies and children do that with foods they aren’t familiar with or don’t prefer.
If your baby is gagging so much, it’s difficult to feed them and your legitimately concerned about their growth because they aren’t eating or drinking enough, I’d recommend getting a feeding evaluation. If you live in the states, you can get that free through early intervention, or you can seek out feeding therapy from other sources.
And, if you want to make the most out of mealtimes in your home as your baby grows, download the 9 Steps to Improve Eating, I’ll send it right to your inbox! These are my top tips for raising a child that has a healthy relationship for food. Get this free printable here!
Before I end here, I wanted to give a big shout out to the folks at feedspot for naming Your Kid’s Table one of the best kids food blogs on the web! You can check out the whole list here.
More on Baby Gagging
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.