Babies can be difficult to care for. It is hard enough to figure out how to change a diaper and put them down for a nap, but then there are other things that babies need help with. One of these things is dysphagia, which means difficulty swallowing. Dysphagia in infants may be caused by many different reasons, such as Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy. This guide will give you insight into the condition and show you what you can do about it.
What Is Dysphagia?
Dysphagia is a condition in which an infant has difficulty swallowing, also known as “oral phase dysphagia.” When a child’s body does not work the way it should, it is called a disorder. In infants with such a condition, their tongue and mouth do not work together well to move food or liquid from the front of their mouth to their throat. This condition can make it hard for them to eat, drink and get the nutrients they need.
Causes of Dysphagia
There are many different causes of this condition in infants. Some common causes include:
- Down syndrome: A genetic disorder that affects a baby’s development.
- Cerebral palsy: A group of disorders that affect a baby’s movement and posture.
- Prematurity: When a baby is born before 37 weeks’ gestation.
- Sucking problems: This can be caused by a birth injury, Cerebral Palsy or Down Syndrome.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Babies with dysphagia may have a hard time feeding, coughing or choking while eating, spitting up a lot, or turning blue around their mouths. If your baby is not gaining weight as expected and you think they might have dysphagia, you need to see a professional. A speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, certified nurse practitioner, pediatrician, etc., can diagnose the problem by evaluating how the child eats and drinks.
Signs and Symptoms of Dysphagia
- Trouble drinking from a bottle or cup: Babies with dysphagia may not be able to suck liquids out of a container. They might try to suck for a long time and still not get any liquid out. Or they might suck and then quickly spit the liquid out.
- Choking: Babies with this condition may choke on food or liquids. This can happen when they are trying to eat, drink or even take a bath.
- Coughing: Some babies with this condition will start coughing when they try to eat or drink. The coughing will often last for a few minutes after they stop eating or drinking.
- Poor weight gain: Some babies with this condition will not gain enough weight. They may eat often but still not get enough food or liquids. This can cause them to become very tired and fussy because they do not get the calories they need to grow well.
- Coughing or gagging when putting baby’s head back for feedings: When your infant eats, their lower jaw should move forward, which opens their mouth. Their tongue also comes forward to make a wide tunnel for food or liquids to travel through while eating. A child with dysphagia might push their head up while feeding instead of sitting up straight like other children do during feedings. This makes it harder for the food to go down into their throat.
Your child’s healthcare provider can suggest a treatment plan based on your child’s needs. Children will see a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist to treat dysphagia in most cases. A speech-language pathologist is a healthcare professional specializing in treating swallowing and speaking issues. An occupational therapist treats people through activities to help them live well and improve their quality of life.
Treatments may include:
Solid foods may be introduced a little at a time as the baby gets older. Babies with dysphagia may have trouble chewing, so pureed foods might be easier for them to eat than regular table food. Your baby should suck fluids from a bottle or drink from a cup before trying to eat foods such as cereal and yogurt. A baby may not be able to suck from a bottle until they are about two or three months old, so it might be easier for them to drink from a cup.
Your child’s healthcare provider may recommend feeding therapy with an occupational therapist. Feeding therapy can help infants move food and liquid from the front of their mouth to their throat. This will reduce coughing and choking when eating and drinking. The therapist might also suggest re-positioning your baby while eating or feeding them with special utensils (e.g., spoons).
You should contact your pediatrician if your infant has any difficulty swallowing, taking medications or having feeding problems. Infants with this condition should have an evaluation to determine the cause and intervention that would be best for their individual needs.