What is pediatric dysphagia?

If children have difficulty swallowing food or liquids, they may be suffering from a term known as dysphagia. This means they are struggling with the swallowing process; transitioning food or liquids from the mouth to the throat, into the esophagus and finally to the stomach. Approximately 25%-45% of typically developing children demonstrate feeding and swallowing difficulties. The total swallowing process is complete from the synchrony of 50 pairs of muscles and 6 primary cranial nerves.

What are the signs and symptoms of dysphagia?

  • Eating slowly
  • Swallowing a single mouthful several times
  • Difficulty coordinating sucking and swallowing
  • Gagging and/or choking during swallowing
  • Drooling
  • Stiffening or arching their bodies during feedings
  • Coughing while eating or drinking
  • Wet or raspy sounding voice while eating or drinking
  • Spitting up or vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Fever during or after eating
  • Watery nose or eyes during or after feeding
  • Vomiting during or after eating
  • Chronic respiratory illnesses

What are some common causes of dysphagia?

  • Cleft lip or palate
  • Prematurity
  • Dental problems
  • Abnormally large tongue or tonsils
  • Gastroesophageal disorders/reflux
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Neurological disorders
  • Medication side effects
  • Sensory issues
  • Behavioral factors
  • Social, emotional, and/or environmental factors

How is dysphagia treated?

If you suspect your child might have pediatric dysphagia or demonstrates dysphagic characteristics, it is important to receive a feeding/swallowing evaluation from a qualified speech-language pathologist (SLP) as soon as possible. They will be able to determine not only if your child is having difficulty with swallowing but also how to develop an intervention plan specific to your child’s needs. Treatment could include the implementation of safe-swallow strategies, diet modification, and referral to other specialists (i.e. GI/ENT). If left untreated, children could suffer from malnutrition, dehydration, aspiration, and even pneumonia.