Can Toddlers Eat Popcorn?

Andy Waters
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It’s no secret that popcorn is a beloved treat amongst virtually every human. Coming in an array of flavors and seasonings, popcorn is fun for everyone to eat. But, is it fun or safe for even the youngest of humans to consume?

Toddlers are insatiably curious at the best of times. They love anything sweet and tasty, which is why it might seem like popcorn is an ideal treat for them to snack on when watching a movie (or just to keep them quiet). However, the question remains – can toddlers eat popcorn?

Here is everything you need to know about whether popcorn is safe for toddlers to eat.

Can Toddlers Eat Popcorn?

Unfortunately, toddlers cannot eat popcorn due to the numerous safety hazards. As much as your little one might want to grab a handful of popcorn while you’re not looking, it’s essential that they don’t consume it.

Popcorn poses a huge safety risk in toddlers. This is because traditional popcorn, no matter how long it has been “popping” for, will always contain kernels and the shells of kernels within the puffy white snack. While adults are well-versed with chewing or spitting out these kernels and shells, toddlers are not.

Think of it like this – adults have far more experience with eating than a toddler does. Adults can safely chew and digest popcorn, but popcorn even poses a choking hazard to grown ups when some unexpected kernel shell gets lodged in the back of their throats. Toddlers, however, still don’t know how to chew properly, nor are their digestive systems ready to digest such potentially sharp foods.

Choking Hazard

Between the ages of 1 and 3 years old is an imperative time for a human’s growth and development. Toddlers are beginning to form their bodies, and while they seem to grow quite rapidly, their bodies are still small. This means that when something gets lodged inside their throats, such as a popcorn kernel or shell, it is still far too large for the trachea to handle.

Toddlers are notorious for not chewing their food properly. They will basically inhale anything that is seemingly small enough to swallow hole. Plus, popcorn offers a variety of textures (from soft to hard to chewy to sharp), which aren’t always easy to chew for a toddler whose teeth are still developing.

As adults, we all know the annoyance of choking on a bit of popcorn. For toddlers, choking on popcorn can be very dangerous and potentially fatal if not prevented or treated. When popcorn (or the kernel or shell) gets stuck into the child’s trachea, which is the breathing pipe, their air supply gets completely cut off.

To put it simply, cutting off this air supply means that a child cannot cough up the bit of popcorn, resulting in painful and harmful choking.

Prevention is the best cure for when a toddler chokes on popcorn, which is why it is considered unsafe and unwise for a toddler to eat it. However, if they do choke on popcorn, there are some things you can do to help them.

The general rule of thumb with choking is that the bigger the piece of food they are choking on, the easier it is to get out. It’s not pleasant, but hitting your child on their upper back helps to clear their trachea to help them breathe, which will subsequently encourage them to cough it out. The same rule applies to smaller pieces of food, but with someone as small as the shell of a popcorn kernel, you’ve got to be a bit more careful.

Popcorn kernel shells are notoriously sharp and can remain lodged in the trachea. So, after managing to clear the airways to get your child coughing, you can then try to get your toddler to sip small amounts of water to push the shell through.

In the worst case scenario, which is unfortunately far more common than you might think, you will need to take your child to the ER or call an ambulance. It’s also worth refreshing yourself in a first aid and CPR course – especially as virtually everything in a home is a choking hazard for a little one!

Flavorings and Sweeteners

Another reason why toddlers can’t eat popcorn is because of the lack of nutritional value. Popcorn is only typically considered a healthy snack when it’s not doused in oils, salts, sugars, or other seasonings. The only nutritional value in unflavored popcorn is the source of fiber, but the choking hazard is simply not worth it.

Flavored popcorn (such as salty, sweet, toffee, butter, caramel, and more) isn’t exactly healthy for adults, either. However, adults have a far more tolerant digestive system than toddlers, and we know how to balance our diets properly. When a toddler eats something that lacks nutrients like popcorn, the high fiber content will fill them up, meaning they will have no space in their tummies for other vital nutrients in foods.

It’s also not wise for a toddler to be eating sweet or salty foods while their teeth are still developing. Sure, the odd sweet treat here and there won’t harm them, but as the cons outweigh the pros in popcorn, it’s not worth it.

When Can a Toddler Eat Popcorn?

The safest age for a child to eat popcorn is when they are 4 years old. As the age range for a toddler is between 1-3 years old, it’s imperative that you don’t allow them to consume popcorn.

The reason why 4 years old is considered the safest minimum age for a child to eat popcorn is because they will have had more practice in properly chewing and swallowing foods. Their teeth will have developed far more by this age, as well as the size of their tracheae. Still, the risk of a 4-year-old choking on popcorn is still prevalent, but less so than if they were a toddler.

If you want to treat your 4-year-old with something like popcorn, look for puffed corn in your nearest grocery store! Puffed corn mimics the taste and texture of popcorn without the dangerous kernels. We recommend testing the puffed corn before giving it to your little one just to be on the safe side.