Yikes! Baby Choking on Milk: Prevention and Handling It Without Freaking Out

I’ve mentioned before that I breastfed both my girls. I’m not here to judge you if you don’t. Our goal as moms is to love and care for our kids the best we can and however, you can feed your baby is the right way.

That being said though, something scary can occur with our wee ones that could take you by surprise if you’re new to this whole mom-thing…your baby could choke on that milk or formula that you’re feeding him. When your baby chokes while nursing, it can really freak you out.

When my first was only a few weeks old, I was very blessed to have lots and lots of milk. I remember when she choked a bit, but it wasn’t serious, thankfully.

An ounce of prevention is always the best way to handle these things. I’m going to tell you all about what to do if you’re feeding your baby and she starts choking on milk because when a newborn gags and chokes, it can cause you to age about 10 years in 10 seconds.

Why Do Babies Choke on Milk?

Milk from mother's breast is a natural medicine to baby.
Mother day bonding concept with newborn baby nursing.

Babies are very new creatures and their digestive systems aren’t quite yet fully developed. Experts often call the first 3 months of a baby’s life the 4th trimester because they’re still developing so much.

On the day of birth, their tummies are tiny. By the end of that week, they’ve doubled in size.

They’re just trying to get the hang of this eating thing and it’s up to us to help them. Babies can choke on milk while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. The main causes of each usually have to do with either how fast your milk or the formula is flowing out or the position in which you’re holding them.

In very rare cases, some babies might have internal conditions that make it hard for them to swallow or create gastroesophageal reflux where everything in their tummies comes back up. If you keep having this problem even after trying the things I suggest below, make sure you contact your child’s pediatrician immediately so they can help.

Why Your Baby is Choking During Breastfeeding

Assuming your baby doesn’t have an internal condition, if you’re breastfeeding, your baby could be choking on your milk for the following reasons:

Overabundance of breastmilk

While we definitely want plenty of milk to nurse our babies, when there’s too much of it, it can lead to your baby choking. Plus, it can be uncomfortable for you too. Trying out different positions can help ease this for both of you.

Forceful letdown

Another problem you may encounter is that your breasts are so full of milk that they practically shoot milk out.

As I said before, babies are just learning how to do this whole eating thing and when the milk shoots out at them, it can come out too quickly for them to swallow.

For either of these, if you notice any of the following signs, it’s very likely that your breastmilk is getting pushy with your baby:

  • Choking, gagging, coughing, or even gasping during a feeding
  • Gumming down on your nipple to stop the milk
  • Pulling away from your breast in repeated intervals
  • Spitting up often
  • Refusing to nurse
  • Making clicking sounds during a feeding

What About Bottle-Feeding and a Choking Baby?

With bottle-feeding, the problems for your baby choking on milk can also arise. You should check the positions you are in when you’re feeding your baby, as well as of those of any caregivers or family members that help out during feeding times.

Additionally, you should check out your bottles. There are many of them now that help keeps the flow from being overbearing. If you don’t have them, you should get them even if your baby hasn’t choked on milk yet.

What Do I Do if My Baby Chokes on Milk?

Patting on back so infant can burp

In many cases, the choking will not be serious. Your baby may pull away from the breast or bottle and start coughing. You can help pat them on the back and soothe them and generally, this should do the trick. But if your baby starts full-on choking, you’ll need to stay calm and help get the milk away from the airway.

Taking a baby CPR course before you become a mom is always a good idea, but if not, here’s what to do:

  • Lay baby face-down on your thigh and give her up to 5 blows to the back.
  • Another method if that fails is to turn your baby over and give her a maximum of 5 chest thrusts until the airway clears.
  • If none of this works, call 911 immediately.

You can also find a more detailed explanation from the Red Cross first aid for baby choking on milk, plus a few other handy things that will help you keep calm and mom-on.

What is Happening Inside When Your Baby Chokes While Nursing?

I know it’s a very frightening thing to see when your newborn gags and chokes. This could be a sign that the baby aspirated milk. This means the milk has gone into their lungs. If your baby is constantly choking on milk, you will want to keep an eye on this and discuss it with your doctor.

There’s no reason to live in perpetual fear though you will want to keep aware as it could cause major health problems. Problems with the muscles that move the liquid from the mouth down the throat and into the digestive system need to be watched. Aspiration can be made worse if your milk letdown is very forceful or you have lots and lots of milk.

If the baby is constantly choking on milk, you should tune into the signs of aspiration:

  • Sucking is weak
  • Baby coughing while nursing
  • Baby sounds like choking on milk
  • Reddening in face
  • Watery eyes
  • Grimacing
  • Stops breathing or breathes faster while feeding
  • Wet-sounding breath or voice after feeding
  • Very slight fever after feedings
  • Breathing problems, including wheezing
  • Regular lung infections

If your baby gags when breastfeeding but everything else seems to be alright, don’t sweat it. But do keep an eye on it. When a baby drinks milk too fast and chokes, usually nothing comes of it.

That’s not to say you won’t worry, because let’s face it, ladies, we’re mamas, and we are programmed to worry!

To put your mind at ease, talk to your doctor. He or she can see if surgery is needed to correct any problems like reflux or a cleft palate. Don’t delay, though, because it’s far better to be the mom that overreacted and called the doctor. And you will get that peace of mind. Most of the time, it simply takes a change in position to keep your baby from choking on milk while breastfeeding. I have more tips on preventing choking on milk further below, so keep reading!

What Should I Do If My Baby Coughs While Feeding?

Well, I can tell you what NOT to do, and that’s scream and freak out. Babies are very in tune with us. Even if they can’t speak any words, they will sense when you are tense, anxious, and afraid.

As I mentioned, most of the time, a baby choking on milk is not a cause for panic. Your pediatrician can tell you it is very common. A quick solution is to stop the feeding and hold your baby upright (supporting the head and neck, of course). This should help her sort out what’s caught in her throat, and the coughing will subside.

Can a Baby Choke on Milk and Die?

I’ll be blunt…yes, a baby can choke on milk and die. A baby can choke on anything and die. And guess what? You can too. We can’t live our lives in a constant state of fear that something awful will happen.

What kind of existence is that to be fearful of what could go wrong? Being afraid that your baby will choke on milk and die is something we all grapple with. But you need to remember the odds are in your favor that everything will be just fine. I have tips below on how to prevent the baby from choking on milk, which will prepare you and further minimize the odds that your baby will choke to death on milk.

How Do You Know When an Infant’s Choking is Serious?

baby lying

In babies and young children, too, if you notice the following signs, call 911 immediately while you work to perform first aid for baby choking on milk:

  • Can’t cry
  • Can’t cough
  • Can’t talk/make sounds
  • Turns bright red or blue

And while I know this sounds purely terrifying; you have to stay calm during this. Panicking isn’t going to stop the choking or save your child. Worrying will give you something to do, but I have a better suggestion…go read up on the Red Cross link I added up above, and you will know what to do.

Still, worrying about choking?

It’s not a bad idea to take a first aid course. You can find one in your local area, again through the Red Cross, or take an online course.

Can babies choke on milk vomit?

Yes, they can choke on milk vomit too. Ironically, this risk is reduced while sleeping if your baby is on her back. The exception to this is a baby with reflux. If your’s is constantly choking on milk, I’d make an appointment with your pediatrician immediately. There are solutions for this that your doctor can help with.

How to Prevent Baby from Choking on Milk

Now the best way to not freak out is to prevent this from happening entirely. By taking a few precautions, you can have peace of mind when it’s time to feed your baby.

Slow things down

For breastfeeding moms, slowing down your milk supply is the best way to keep a forceful letdown from overpowering your baby. You can apply pressure to your breasts by pushing inward for several seconds. This helps slow things down and is good to do before you start nursing for feeding time. If you’re bottle-feeding, check your bottles to see if they’re slow-flow. If not, it’s time to get new ones, ASAP.

Try block feeding

When you’re breastfeeding, you can try this method of only nursing from one breast during each feeding session. This helps her get all that fatty hindmilk too, another benefit. Keep it to that breast only for a couple of hours of feedings, then switch to the other breast to even out the supply and keep it from going into overload.

Check the latch

Sometimes, babies can choke on milk if they aren’t latching properly. Make sure if you’re planning to breastfeed your new baby that you have that latch squared away. If you aren’t sure you’ve got things right, while you’re still in the hospital, get help from the nurses to show you how to get your angel on there just right. When you get the proper latch, breastfeeding usually goes very smoothly because babies can handle the flow better.

Change your position

For breastfeeding, using an uphill position or a down-under position can help ease the problem. The football hold with a slight lean backward is another one to try. If you’re feeding baby from a bottle, try adjusting your position so she’s got an easier time of swallowing that milk.

Read two of my favorite positions – side lying and laid-back.

When Baby Falls Asleep While Drinking Milk

Whether you’re nursing or bottle-feeding, babies can get pretty sleepy. Such a nice life, right? They tend to slow down their suckling when they get sleepy and usually fall off the nipple of the breast or bottle on their own. At this point, they shouldn’t be in any danger of choking, but spit-up could occur.

A good way to avoid that is to keep them elevated during the feeding, but if that’s not possible, for example, if you’re laying down in bed, then carefully lift her up on your shoulder and gently pat her back for a few minutes. This should help things settle down.

While babies can choke on milk, the good news is that if they spit up, their little bodies can handle it. Lay baby on her back when she sleeps to prevent SIDS and turn her little head slightly left or right (try to alternate it) and everything will be fine.

One Last Thing…

The slightest cough would startle me when I was a new mom. I learned to stay calm no matter what was going on and I advise you to do the same. Most of the time, everything will be fine, but on the rare occasion it isn’t, don’t lose your cool and go through these steps to stop choking. But first, get your precautions in place to prevent it!

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