The Fourth of July is already surrounded with enough hazards to stress out parents. We’re looking at you, open water and fireworks.
But what about your kids’ plates?
Summer is peak hot dog season. Considering 150 million franks are consumed on the Fourth of July alone, according to 2019 data, there is a strong chance they will be on the menu over the holiday.
So, now is “a good reminder time that hot dogs can be serious choking hazards,” said Dr. Tanya Altmann, author of “Baby & Toddler Basics.”
The size, shape and texture of hot dogs make them especially dangerous for young children, so the pediatrician is here to explain everything parents should know before handing a kid a dog.
Hot dogs top lists of foods to avoid giving toddlers
Any food that is “large, round and solid” can be a potential choking hazard, Altmann said.
That’s why hot dogs often rank at the top of lists of foods to avoid giving young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that hot dogs should be kept away from children younger than 4 years old.
Other potentially dangerous foods include whole grapes, hard or sticky candy, chunks of meat or cheese and popcorn.
“Hot dogs are long and round and when (young children) bite off a piece of it, it really looks kind of like a thick quarter and that is the perfect size to get lodged into a child’s throat,” Altmann said.
Choking incidents among children
In a 2013 study of choking incidents among young children, the AAP reported “choking is a leading cause of injury among children, and can sometimes be fatal.”
Researchers investigated nonfatal food choking-related emergency department visits among children ages 0 to 14 years from 2001 to 2009. On average, 12,400 children (or 34 per day) were treated for a choking incident.
Hard candy caused most choking episodes (15 percent), followed by other candy (13 percent), meat other than hot dogs (12 percent) and bones (12 percent).
Hot dogs accounted for 2.6% of the cases.
At what age can a child eat a hot dog?
Parents can start introducing solid foods (except raw honey, which can harbor bacteria that causes foodborne illness in infants) to babies around 6 months of age, said Altmann. Parents should consider both the nutritional value and safety of a food when choosing their baby’s diet.
“If you wanted to mash up a hot dog into pureed or bite-sized pieces, theoretically you could feed it to an older infant or toddler, but I would argue it may not be nutritionally the best choice,” she said.
But kids love hot dogs. We all know they will eat them. So when they do, they should be appropriately cut up to reduce the risk of choking.
“I’m one of those crazy moms that goes around the birthday party with the plastic knife that cuts all the hot dogs,” Altmann said.
Cut hot dogs lengthwise first
All foods for babies and young children should be cut into 1/2 -inch or smaller pieces, the AAP recommends. However, “cylindrical-shaped foods” require extra care.
“Hot dogs, for instance, are exactly the size of a child’s airway and can easily wedge in there,” the USDA notes in its April 2019 “Infant Nutrition and Feeding” guide for WIC.
Thus, hot dogs should be cut lengthwise into strips first and then cut again into smaller pieces.
The same goes for other common choking hazards such as grapes, cherries and cherry tomatoes.
For older kids that want to be like the grown-ups and eat a hot dog while holding it, Altmann says parents could still cut the hot dog in half long-ways before putting it in the bun to help reduce the choking risk.
When can parents stop cutting hot dogs for kids?
Usually around age 4 is when the choking risk is reduced because children “are a little more aware, their throats are a little bit bigger and they are able to handle things that need to be chewed a little more before they swallow them,” Altmann said.
But 4 also isn’t a “magical” number, she warned. “Anything can be a choking hazard.”
Besides cutting up risky foods, caregivers should also teach kids how to eat food by taking small bites and appropriately chewing before swallowing. Adults should also stay within reach of children when they are eating so they can help if there is an incident.
What to do in a choking situation
“Make sure the child is really choking,” Altmann said. If a child is coughing or talking, there’s a chance the child can push the food out on his or her own.
But look for the following signs of a choking child:
- Unable to breathe
- Gasping or wheezing
- Unable to talk
- Turning blue
- Grasping at their throat
- Waving their arms
- Appear panicked
- Limp or unconscious
If a child is choking, call 911 and start a rescue procedure like back blows for infants or the Heimlich Maneuver for older kids.
But prevention is always best.
“For young children, just cut it up and for older kids, watch them carefully when they are eating and remind them to take small bites,” Altmann said.
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