Whether for movie nights or when you’re on the go, popcorn is a delicious snack. But you may have heard that eating popcorn can be dangerous for little kids. Can toddlers eat popcorn? We talked to two experts to get all the information.
While there are so many different types of snacks that toddlers can eat, popcorn is a big no, says Dr. Whitney Casares, MD, MPH, FAAP. “I don't ever recommend popcorn for toddlers. A major choking hazard, popcorn can easily become stuck in a young person's airway because of its size and shape.”
Along with raw vegetables, popcorn is one of many choking hazards for babies. “Around age four, their risk of choking is reduced because their airways are more developed. But you should also make sure your little one has developed sufficient chewing skills to handle solid foods like popcorn,” explains Chanel Kenner, RD.
A toddler's diet should consist of soft foods that are easily mashable, according to Dr. Casarees. “Toddlers should avoid all small, round pieces of food that can get stuck in the airway or be aspirated.” Examples of this include nuts, popcorn, whole grapes, and hot dogs.
However, just because a food is mushy doesn’t mean it's safe. For example, while some types of fish are mushy, they aren’t an ideal part of a toddler’s diet. “Large fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish can contain high levels of mercury and should be limited,” says Kenner.
In addition to popped kernels, there’s a list of other foods that toddlers should also avoid. “Infants under the age of one should not consume honey because of the risk of infant botulism,” says Kenner. “Foods made with raw or undercooked eggs, such as homemade mayonnaise or certain cookie doughs, can pose a risk of foodborne illness. Unpasteurized Dairy products can also contain harmful bacteria and should be avoided.”
Yes, a toddler can aspirate popcorn. Aspiration is when something is inhaled into the lungs, which Dr. Casares says, “can cause significant damage.”
This is particularly true for large hard pieces of food or unpopped kernels. “If a toddler attempts to swallow them and they get lodged in their airway, it can lead to choking and, in some cases, aspiration,” explains Kenner.
While your two-year-old might be fine if they accidentally eat popcorn—Dr. Casares advises watching them closely for any signs of choking or aspiration.
“Choking signs include cyanosis (becoming blue in the face), grabbing at the throat, and fast and hard breathing,” she says. “Children who aspirate may also have difficulty breathing. They may develop a new cough or fever, or may have difficulty feeding.”
However, accidents happen such as when older siblings share their snacks. If this is the case, you may be able to let this one go, at least for now. “If your child appears to be eating the popcorn safely and without any signs of distress, such as choking or difficulty swallowing, there is likely no cause for concern,” says Kenner.
Mini rice cakes, puffs, and snap pea crisps are good examples of crunchy snacks that aren't choking risks for toddlers.
Around age four or five is a good time to first try popcorn. At that age, their airways are more developed and choking is less of a risk. However, you may want to wait a little longer depending on how good your child is with trying new foods.
When offering popcorn, make sure it's served in small, manageable pieces. Avoid whole kernels or large pieces because of the risks of choking. You can also break the popcorn into smaller, bite-sized portions.
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