In 1999, 12-year-old Catherine Fish choked to death on a mouth full of marshmallows. She and her classmates had been playing a popular game in which children shove marshmallows into their mouths until they can no longer say the phrase “Chubby Bunny”, when Catherine’s lips turned purple. Her teacher, who had innocently initiated the activity and then walked away, scrambled onto the scene and tried his best to resuscitate her. Two hours later, Catherine was dead.
This was not an isolated incident. Experts agree that Chubby Bunny carries serious risk of suffocation, and that parents should never let their kids play such a game. “Children playing games such as Chubby Bunny might sound harmless, but the reality is that they pose serious risks of choking and suffocation,” Dr. Zubair Ahmed, a family physician, told Fatherly. “While many parents will understand that the combination of laughter and mouths stuffed with marshmallows is not a safe activity for children, others still do not fully understand the dangers of such choking games.”
The origins of Chubby Bunny are not totally clear, but one of the earliest references to the seemingly harmless game was made in a 1959 Peanuts comic strip where Snoopy attempts to put as many marshmallows in his mouth as possible. Only two choking deaths from Chubby Bunny have made it into the literature (a few years after Catherine died, a Canadian woman suffocated while trying to win a game of Chubby Bunny at a fair), but Ahmed suspects the number of close calls is much higher. Choking is the fifth leading cause of death for children under the age of five, and accounts for 12,000 emergency room visits each year. In the U.S. one or two children die each week from choking on food.
And yet, Chubby Bunny still innocently appears on websites recommending icebreakers and there are nearly one million videos on YouTube of children taking the “Chubby Bunny challenge”—blocking their airways for clicks.
Chubby Bunny is especially dangerous because marshmallows take up a large amount of space in a child’s mouth, and their consistency makes them difficult to remove via the Heimlich maneuver. “Marshmallows tend to be hard to remove from the airway, because of their ability to compress and then re-expand, as well as their texture which does not slide easily in or out of the airway,” Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth, a surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates, told Fatherly.
Unfortunately, many adults are unaware of the dangers and may encourage kids to start a round of Chubby Bunny, or fail to stop them before it’s too late. So Ahmed and Hollingsworth agree that parents need to discuss the dangers with their kids, and teach them not to succumb to peer pressure. Think of it as a different kind of marshmallow test. “I would tell my kids to avoid playing it at all, and I would try and coach them to recognize and to run for an adult in any situation where they think someone is choking,” Hollingsworth says. “So many of these activities seem very innocuous.”
“But when your child is choking in front of you, it will change the way you view these games.”