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We’ve lumped these three fears together because they all tend to revolve around the same issue: the gag reflex, and a child’s anxiety about not being able to breathe.

Fear of vomiting or throwing up in children

Throwing up can be quite the uncomfortable feeling. It takes away your breath and can burn the throat. Very young children who are concerned about body autonomy may even fear that they are losing part of themselves when they vomit, or that their insides are coming out. If they experienced a situation where they choked on their vomit in the past, this may heighten such fears.

  1. Make sure young children understand it’s the stomach contents and not their insides that are coming up.
  1. Reassure older kids that so long as they are throwing up with their head faced down, it’s virtually impossible to choke to death, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. Arming them with this knowledge often alleviates anxiety.
  1. During such times, calmly talk through the situation. Sympathize with how unpleasant it feels but reassure your child that all is OK: “I know this feels horrible. But it’s just a normal part of being sick that we have to go through before we feel better.”
  1. Play games holding your breath to show how long we can easily go without air.

Fear of choking or swallowing in children

Choking fears typically arise when children have had a scary incident in the past. Kids who are afraid of swallowing often feel a similar anxiety because they have a strong gag reflex, and so swallowing certain types of foods can make them feel like they’re going to choke.

  1. If your child suffers from a fear of swallowing, check with your pediatrician to ensure nothing is medically wrong.
  1. Talk to your child about why we choke and how to avoid it. Discuss things like chewing thoroughly, not playing around while eating, and which types of foods are the most problematic. (See our child safety book for more information on choking prevention.) If the fear comes from a bad past experience, this should give your child a sense of empowerment that eases her fears.
  1. There are a few activities you can do with water that might improve your child’s ability to tolerate these sensations:
  • Have them take a big mouthful of water, then tilt their head back and swallow. This awkward position makes swallowing a bit harder and more uncomfortable, but can get them accustomed to such sensations so that they are less sensitive in other regards.
  • Teach them to gargle water and have contests to see how long they can do it. This will also reduce the sensitivity of their gag reflex.

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