Our bodies need food and liquids in order to survive. We get those through eating and drinking. However, feeding and swallowing disorders can inhibit getting enough food, or the right foods, that are necessary to grow, develop and nourish ourselves.
As newborns, the first feeding instinct we obtain is sucking. Babies are fed through either the breast or bottle by sucking and swallowing liquids. Eventually, semi-solid and then solid foods are introduced. As the child grows, they develop the ability to open and close their mouth, manipulate their lips and tongue, chew, and then swallow larger pieces with various textures.
Most children struggle with all of these at first. That’s normal. Dribbling while drinking, food slipping out of their mouth, even gagging, are all part of the process as a child learns how to eat and drink. But when this continues and does not go away, a child may be facing a feeding disorder.
Signs of Feeding/Swallowing Disorders
The causes of a feeding and swallowing disorder are varied. Simple lack of muscle strength in the face and neck, or GI problems like reflux can contribute. Sensory issues or a cleft palate/lip are also causes. Or it may also be related to another condition like autism or cerebral palsy. Signs to look for if a parent or caregiver is concerned include:
- Back arching: stiffening or arching the back when feeding
- Crying and fussing, refusing to eat
- Coughing and gagging, with excessive drool
- Regularly spitting up or vomiting after meals
- Avoiding certain foods or will only eat something specific
- Difficulty breathing while eating
- Lack of weight gain
If left unaddressed, a feeding/swallowing disorder can lead to dehydration, malnutrition, aspiration (food/liquids in the lungs) that can cause pneumonia or lung infections, and social anxiety.
Speech Therapy Treatments
The first step is always an evaluation. A doctor or therapist will look at the medical history, developmental milestones, and physically examine the child. If a diagnosis of a feeding/swallowing disorder is determined, working with a Speech Language Pathologist is one course of treatment. Other options include medicines to reduce reflux, dental work, diet and food preparation modifications, or simply changing body position while eating.
If working with an SLP is recommended, typical treatment plans will include the following:
- Improving mouth and tongue muscle strength
- Learning how to manipulate the tongue
- Proper chewing techniques
- Proper swallowing
- Skills to breathe while eating at the same time
- Adapting to new food textures
- Behavioral modifications for meal times
With a little guidance and early intervention, many feeding and swallowing disorders can be overcome and corrected. Recognizing the warning signs in order to address and create healthy eating habits as soon as possible is important. For questions on how to get started, contact our team at The Speech Pathology Group and Rehab Services. Whether your child needs a short-term intervention, or long-term therapy, our SLPs are ready to work together with you to make mealtimes more enjoyable and less of a struggle.