5 Steps to Conquer Gagging

Exploring Oranges with Mel Melanie Potock is an amazing speech pathologist and ‘real food’ advocate for kids (check our her blog mymunchbug.com). I was so excited when she agreed to write this super helpful guest post. Thanks Melanie!

As a pediatric feeding therapist or “food coach for kids”, I was smiling as I read Karen Le Billon’s new book, Getting to Yum. Truthfully, it was more than just a happy look on my face, I have to admit I was downright giddy.   Nothing makes me happier than helping children become more adventurous eaters in a fun and family-centered way. That’s exactly the theme in Getting to Yum: Involve the whole family in taste-training games and help kids tune into the joy of discovering new foods!

But what’s a parent to do if their child is a sensitive eater and gags at the slightest taste or touch of a new food on their tongue? While gagging isn’t life-threatening (read Karen’s description of gagging vs. choking) it certainly is an unpleasant reflex that reinforces one thing: NOT eating. If a child gags enough, it leads to vomiting. Enough said. We don’t want to go there.

Playing a food gameHere are five surprising steps to help your child manage their gag reflex and feel in control when they taste a brand new food:

  1. Start with a pea-sized bite, preferably cut into a cube. The cube shape helps kids feel the food in their mouths because the edges provide more tactile input and is easier to control.
  2. Teach your child to place it directly on the molars. Most kids take a hesitant bite with the front teeth so that the tongue tip can push it right out – patooey! Or, it falls directly from there backward onto the tongue and that’s often when the gagging starts. Instead, give your child better oral motor control by encouraging them to pick up the piece with their fingers and place it where a dinosaur chews – on his molars – so that it’s closer to the back of the throat to be swallowed. Little kids really get this – they can picture a dinosaur chewing with his “dino-teeth” and love that silly analogy. “Put it on your dino-teeth and chew like a T-Rex!”
  3. Chew HARD! Hesitant eaters chew hesitantly. They lightly tap their teeth on the surface of the food and consequently let it fall onto the tongue – and then they gag. Like a dinosaur, chew hard! With my younger clients in feeding therapy, we pound the table with our fists when we chew a brand new food to ensure that we are also chewing with force. This deliberate chewing provides the proprioceptive input that tells our brain exactly where the food is in our mouth and thus, decreases the tendency to gag.
  4. Pick up a glass of water with a STRAW. As adults, when we reach for a glass of water while eating a meal, we swallow much of the food in our mouths before the rim of the glass reaches our lips. To teach this learned behavior, a straw in the glass will help your child close his mouth and propel the chewed food backward to the throat to be swallowed.
  5. Take another small sip to hose down the tongue. The straw also acts like a garden hose, washing any tickly spots on the tongue and signaling the brain to swallow again. In fact, it’s impossible to swallow and gag at the same time.

Mel Playing with Dino TeethWhether your child is a garden-variety picky eater, an emerging foodie or perhaps a child with special needs who is in feeding therapy, always focus on what your child CAN do and progress from there.   Once the pea-sized bites are swallowed with ease, progress to bean-sized bites until eventually your munch bug is tasting a comfortable, age-appropriate bite and asking for more. This same strategy can be implemented with toddlers or teenagers, but let’s face it – it’s probably best to forgo the dinosaur language at that point. Just remember to take it step-by-step and follow the Getting to Yum guidelines for keeping it fun!

Melanie headshot 2Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP is a certified speech language pathologist, an international speaker on the topic of picky eating, and the author of the award winning parenting book,  Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food! With over 18 years’ experience treating children with feeding difficulties, Mel’s approach to developing feeding skills includes the fundamentals of parenting in the kitchen, such as how to avoid mealtime debates and creating more joyful mealtimes, even with a hesitant eater. Mel embraces her work with families with an open heart and a touch of humor.  After all, the journey to more adventurous eating should be celebrated each step of the way!  She has also produced the award winning children’s CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food as a tool to keep mealtimes joyful and family centered.  Connect with Melanie at My Munch Bug on facebook and twitter or email her at Melanie@mymunchbug.com

4 thoughts on “5 Steps to Conquer Gagging

  1. Hi Teresa, Thank you for your input! I think it’s such a good example of what we both know – that each family is unique, as is each child. So, for some kids, a gag is just a gag. But for kids in weekly feeding therapy, it can be so much more, because it can cause a chain reaction in behavior, both from the child and the caring parent. It’s something I cover quite a bit in my course for therapists (Feeding Therapy: It’s Not Just about Swallowing) and something I encounter day to day as I work with families. Feeding Therapy involves a lot of trust between parent and child, therapist and child and therapist and parent. So, the way I build that trust is to start with small attainable steps. Once I have some trust as a foundation, parents can let go of some of the fear. It’s a gentle process…slow…nurturing…but it’s like any relationship in that way.

    Thank you for your kind words about this post. It’s difficult to say all that I would like to say in the course of a short article like this, but again, that’s because every situation is different. Thank you so much for all the support you give kids and families!



  2. Thoroughly enjoyed your 5 tips. I, too, have specialized in this area for approximately 13 years. All
    You said I have also found to be true. The Food Chaining Intake I have also found to be an extremely helpful tool in progressing these clients to expand the diet. It also helps to get the parent involved as I’m sure you are aware. My greatest issue I face with these clients is that mommies have a very hard time watching the gagging and go backwards as a result. I try to be gently frank with them and convince them if they don’t follow through t home it will indeed be a much longer process. Additionally, if the child knows they can gag, even a young infant, and get their desire of not ” having to” ingest that item,mom
    Is simply building that response and encouraging the gagging. Some get it, yet some don’t. Would live to hear your ideas for how you deal with the parental aspects when the parent has a hard time with tough love under these conditions. I generally do convince them to my way of thinking but it is often a challenge within itself. I know it must be very difficult to watch your child gag on foods. It’s hard as a therapist to watch. Yet, we know it must occur at times to progress and move on. Thank you for starting the discussion. Hopefully more will join in and share their tricks on problem mommies. Lol. They just love their children. It’s so hard and I do get that. But any tactics others have used might give me a new one, you just never know! Thanks to all. God bless! Teresa


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