Feeding and Swallowing Problems (Dysphagia)

Dysphagia means trouble with feeding and / or swallowing. Oral dysphagia refers to problems with using the mouth, lips and tongue to control food or liquid. Pharyngeal dysphagia refers to problems in the throat during swallowing.

Dysphagia may lead to aspiration (where food or liquid gets into the lungs).

Dysphagia can affect a person at any age − from infants to the elderly.

There are many disorders that may cause dysphagia. Any condition that weakens or damages the muscles or nerves used for feeding and swallowing may cause dysphagia. The following are some common disorders related to pediatric swallowing problems:

  • Heart or lung conditions
  • Gastroesophageal disorders, including reflux
  • Oral sensory or oral motor problems
  • Prematurity
  • Head and / or neck cancer
  • Cleft palate
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Stroke
  • Neuromuscular disease
  • Brain injury
  • Birth defects 
  • Unable to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing while bottle-feeding
  • Irritability related to feeding
  • Color change during or after feeding
  • Lengthy feeding times (greater than 30 minutes)
  • Coughing
  • Choking
  • Gagging
  • Trouble chewing
  • Congestion during or after feeding
  • Change of breathing rate with feeding
  • History of pneumonia
  • Sensation of food being stuck in the throat
  • Limited intake of food or liquids
  • Refusal of previously accepted food or liquids
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Evidence of food or liquid in a tracheotomy tube 

Dysphagia may result in inadequate airway protection during swallowing, causing food or liquid to get into the lungs (aspiration). Aspiration into the airway can cause frequent episodes of upper respiratory infections and pneumonia. A child with dysphagia often has anxiety with eating or drinking. The child may not be able to manage food or liquid well or accept an age-appropriate diet. Dehydration and malnutrition may occur if the feeding problem goes untreated. If the dysphagia is severe, another source of nutrition and hydration, such as a feeding tube, may be needed. 

Treatment for dysphagia is based on the nature and severity of the child's swallowing problem. The speech-language pathologist will help with the evaluation of the dysphagia, and may suggest and provide therapy to:

  • Enhance strength, range of motion, and coordination of the lips, tongue, cheek, and jaw muscles
  • Decrease oral aversion to foods and liquids
  • Decrease behavioral resistance to feeding
  • Decrease the risk for aspiration

The speech-language pathologist may also suggest the following after talking with the child’s medical team:

  • A change in food textures or in the thickness of liquids
  • A change in the feeding equipment, such as the nipple, bottle, cup or utensils
  • Strategies to help with drinking and eating

This information is not intended to replace the need for specialized care.

If your child has a feeding or swallowing problem, talk with your primary care physician. Depending on the severity of the problem, the child may be referred to a physician that specializes in feeding problems, a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a registered dietitian, or a lactation consultant.

A speech-language pathologist can perform a clinical oral-motor and feeding evaluation to find the problem and see if there is a need for treatment or further assessment.

A VSS (video fluoroscopic swallowing study), also known as a modified barium swallow, may be suggested. A VSS is done by a speech-language pathologist and a radiologist. An X-ray video is taken of the child’s throat while he or she is eating and drinking. The examiners evaluate the safety and efficiency of swallow. They can also detect aspiration and other problems with swallowing function. Techniques to modify the way the child swallows can be introduced to see what may help with swallowing issues.

A FEES (fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of the swallow) study may also be suggested. This study is done with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor and a speech-language pathologist. In involves putting a small tube (scope) through the child’s nose to the back of the throat so that the structures and muscle function can be watched directly during swallowing. This study allows observation of the child’s ability to protect the airway from secretions, liquids and solids during swallowing. 

  • Implement various exercises, activities and recommendations given by the speech pathologist.
  • Include the child in family mealtime and keep the experience positive. 

For more information, contact the Division of Speech Pathology, 513-636-4341


Last Updated 04/2013