Help! My child's choking and we're stuck in traffic

Aug 4, 2014 at 6:00 a.m. ET
Image: Kali Nine LLC/iStock/360/Getty Images

You look in the rear-view mirror, and notice that your child is distressed and not breathing. What do you do now, mom?

If you want a nightmare, go ahead and Google "pediatric choking." You'll find all manner of horror stories from moms who have lived through the unthinkable. You'll also find statistics, like the Centers for Disease Control research that cites choking as the fourth leading cause of death in young children — a tragedy that takes one child's life every five days.

Choking while driving: A preventable crisis

You'll also hear wisdom from health experts like the New York Times' Jane Brody, who says, "A child should not eat in a moving vehicle, ever. If the driver stops short or the vehicle is bumped from behind, the sudden lurch may cause a child to inhale food or to swallow it un-chewed."

Of course, this seems so obvious, but I'm guilty of handing french fries to my daughter in the backseat when we're crunched for time. My best guess is that you've given your child food while driving, too. Most moms can recognize that this isn't a great parenting practice — but do you know what to do if your child starts to choke while you're stuck in the car?

Think quickly for survival

First of all, you need to recognize the signs of choking. According to the Mayo Clinic, a choking child won't be able to talk or cough forcefully, and will have difficulty breathing. If too much time passes, his or her skin and nails will start to look bluish. He or she may lose consciousness. If any of these signs are present, you must act quickly and calmly, even if you're stuck in traffic.

  1. Stop the car. If you're stopped in traffic already, turn on your hazards. If your car is moving, pull it to the shoulder immediately. Don't spend more than a few seconds getting your car safely pulled over — time is of the essence.
  2. Dial 911 while stopping the car. If someone is with you, direct him or her to call 911 immediately. If you're by yourself, you must call for emergency help as soon as possible, too. Use the time you're stopping the car to call 911 so that you don't waste any time. You can explain your emergency on speakerphone as you're providing first aid to your child.
  3. Provide first aid. If your child is over the age of 1, the American Red Cross says to remove him or her from the vehicle and deliver five back blows between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand, as your child is draped across your other arm. Then stand him or her up to deliver five quick abdominal thrusts. Continue this pattern until the object comes out of the airway. If your child is under 1, use Mayo Clinic's infant first aid for choking, which uses a similar pattern of back blows and chest thrusts. You can administer this pattern by giving back blows as your child is draped across your inner forearm, with his or her head in your hands, facing down.

Once help arrives, leave the scene to go to the hospital. Doctors will need to check your child for remaining food or object particles, in order to prevent later aspiration or infection.

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