Feeding and swallowing disorders occur when a child has a problem feeding or swallowing. They are a symptom of another condition or disease.

Feeding and swallowing disorders cause aspiration, which means liquids or food getting into the lungs. They can also lead to the child not eating or drinking enough. If the condition becomes severe, the child may need a feeding tube to get proper nutrition. In some cases, feeding and swallowing disorders can lead to anxiety about eating or drinking.

Generally, feeding and swallowing disorders fall into two categories.

  • Oral: when the mouth, tongue or lips and tongue have problems controlling food or liquids that are being swallowed
  • Pharyngeal: a problem in the throat with swallowing

Children may have problems in just one of these areas, or both.

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What are the signs and symptoms of feeding and swallowing disorders?

  • Gagging or choking
  • Coughing
  • Trouble chewing
  • Taking a long time to feed
  • Having a change of skin color after feeding
  • Not eating or drinking very much
  • Congestion after feeding
  • Refusal to eat or drink
  • Not gaining weight 
  • A history of pneumonia

What causes feeding and swallowing disorders?

Many conditions and diseases can cause feeding and swallowing disorders. These can include:

  • Brain injury
  • Cleft palate or lip
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Heart conditions
  • Being born early (premature)
  • Gastroesophageal disorders, such as reflux
  • Neuromuscular disease
  • Sensory problems
  • Autism
  • Head and neck problems
  • Muscle weakness
  • Breathing problems

How are feeding and swallowing disorders treated?

Treatment for feeding and swallowing disorders will depend on how severe the problem is. Treatments may include:

  • Therapy to help strengthen and increase motion in the lips, tongue or jaw and decrease any aversion to foods
  • Therapy to reduce the risk for aspiration
  • Changing textures of foods or drinks
  • Learning strategies to help eat and drink
  • Changing the method used to eat or drink, such as cups, nipples, bottles or utensils

Doctors at Connecticut Children’s can determine the right plan if your child requires treatment for a feeding or swallowing disorder.