Pediatric Dysphagia

See the Assessment section of the Pediatric Dysphagia Evidence Map for pertinent scientific evidence, expert opinion, and client/caregiver perspective.


The assessment of swallowing and feeding disorders forms the basis for developing management strategies. SLPs may need to use multiple forms of assessment to make informed treatment decisions.

The purpose of a pediatric swallowing/feeding assessment is to

  • diagnose a swallowing and/or feeding disorder,
  • determine which phase(s) of swallowing may be involved in the disorder,
  • provide a profile of contributing causes that will enable the clinician to
    • determine if the infant or child should be referred to an interdisciplinary team for comprehensive clinical assessment of feeding skills,
    • determine whether additional instrumental assessment is needed to further delineate the child's dysphagia characteristics,
    • determine if collaborative medical or allied health evaluations are needed,
    • select and recommend appropriate, symptom-specific interventions and a program plan.

The pediatric swallowing/feeding assessment may result in

  • clinical description of the characteristics of the disorder, including related functions that affect the disorder (e.g., airway, behavioral, craniofacial, gastrointestinal, motor, neurologic, nutritional, respiratory),
  • diagnosis of a disorder of swallowing and/or feeding function,
  • prognosis for change (in the individual or in relevant contexts),
  • identification of contributing causes,
  • determination of educational relevance of a diagnosed swallowing and feeding disorder (for children in a school setting),
  • referral to an interdisciplinary team for comprehensive clinical assessment of feeding skills,
  • referral for additional assessment, including instrumental assessment,
  • referral for additional collaborative medical or allied health evaluations when indicated,
  • recommendation for intervention and support, including school-based therapy and classroom management, where appropriate,
  • identification of potentially effective interventions.

SLPs conduct assessments in a manner that is sensitive to the family's cultural background, religious beliefs, and preferences for medical treatment. Families are encouraged to bring food and drink common to their household and utensils/implements typically used by the child; typical feeding practices are observed during assessment (e.g., if the child is typically fed sitting on a parent's lap, then this is observed during the assessment).

Special Considerations

Practitioners take into consideration the following factors when assessing swallowing and feeding disorders in the pediatric population.

  • Etiologies of swallowing deficits differ and may not be defined clearly in some pediatric populations.
  • There are distinct differences in the relationships of anatomic structures and physiology of the swallowing mechanism among infants, young children, and adults. In addition, the developing infant and child experience changes in relative and absolute size and shape of oral and pharyngeal structures.
    • In infants, the tongue fills the oral cavity and the velum hangs lower, the hyoid bone and larynx are positioned higher than in adults, and the larynx elevates less than in adults during the pharyngeal phase of the swallow.
    • Once the infant begins eating pureed food, each swallow is discrete and the oral and pharyngeal phases are similar to that of an adult (although with less elevation of the larynx).
    • As the child matures, the jaw grows down and forward and the tongue moves down. The space between the tongue and the palate increases, and the larynx and the hyoid bone lower, elongating and enlarging the pharynx (Logemann, 1998).
  • Infants and children may have congenital abnormalities of the anatomy and physiology.
  • Unlike most adults, infants and children cannot verbally describe their symptoms; family, caregivers, and professionals must rely on nonverbal forms of communication, signs of swallowing and feeding problems, information from monitoring devices in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and thorough case histories to get a full picture of the child's situation.
  • Infants and children grow and develop even when they have chronic conditions, so swallowing may change over time.
  • Age correction is applied in the case of premature infants; the actual feeding skills are assessed based on those expected for the infant's corrected age, rather than his or her chronological age.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cautioned consumers about the use of commercial, gum-based thickeners for infants from birth to 1 year of age, especially when the product is used to thicken breast milk. SLPs should be aware of these cautions and consult as appropriate in their facility to develop guidelines for using thickened liquids with infants. (See FDA consumer cautions, 2011, 2013).

Team Approach

Due to the heterogeneity of diagnoses and the complexity of managing dysphagia across the age spectrum, a team approach is often ideal, if not necessary, for diagnosis and management of pediatric dysphagia. Formation of the team begins with involvement of the family or caregivers.

Additional assessment team members might include representatives of different disciplines to provide a comprehensive assessment of the infant/child. Team members may include

  • an SLP who specializes in swallowing and feeding,
  • one or more physicians (e.g., a pediatrician, neonatologist, physiatrist, otolaryngologist, pulmonologist, endocrinologist, neurologist, neurosurgeon, cardiac surgeon, and/or gastroenterologist),
  • a registered dietitian,
  • a nurse or nurse practitioner,
  • an occupational therapist,
  • a psychologist,
  • a social worker,
  • a board certified lactation consultant,
  • a physical therapist.

Other medical and rehabilitation specialists may be needed; individual team members and disciplines may vary depending on the type of facility, professional expertise needed, and specific population being served.

Clinical Evaluation

A clinical evaluation of swallowing and feeding is usually the first step in a comprehensive evaluation to determine the presence or absence of a swallowing disorder. This evaluation may be completed during an individual session by a SLP with expertise in pediatric swallowing and feeding issues or as part of a more comprehensive evaluation conducted by a feeding team. The clinical evaluation addresses the swallowing-based activities of eating, drinking, and secretion management and, in addition, may address the activities of taking oral medications and teeth brushing.

The clinician considers signs of involvement in one or more of three categories when determining contributing causes.

Physiological—medical disorders, in particular those involving neurological, craniofacial, gastroenterological, pulmonary, and metabolic systems. These disorders may be temporary, chronic, or progressive in nature.

Developmental—issues associated with failure to develop mature skills for swallowing-based activities at expected milestone ages; typically associated with deprivation of timely and appropriate practice for acquisition of skills or a secondary effect of a physiological and/or behavioral swallowing and feeding disorder.

Behavioral—disorders involving (a) motivation for eating and/or engaging in other appropriate feeding/swallowing-based activities and (b) the social and interactive aspects of engaging in feeding activities. This category includes behaviors that are associated with refusal to engage, as well as self-abusive, aggressive, disruptive, or other maladaptive behaviors. Sensory issues may play a role in some behavioral responses.

The clinical evaluation typically includes

  • case history, based on a comprehensive review of medical/ clinical records, as well as interviews with the family and other health care professionals;
  • assessment of overall physical, social, behavioral, and communicative development;
  • observation of the child eating or being fed by a family member or caregiver using foods from the home and typically used utensils, as well as those that may be rejected or cause problems;
  • structural assessment of face, jaw, lips, tongue, hard and soft palate, oral pharynx, and oral mucosa;
  • functional assessment of muscles and structures used in swallowing, including symmetry, sensation, strength, tone, range and rate of motion, and coordination of movement;
  • observation of head-neck control, posture, developmental postural and oral reflexes, and involuntary movements noted in the context of the child's developmental level;
  • functional assessment of swallowing ability, including but not limited to typical developmental skills and task components-suckling and sucking in infants, mastication in older children, oral containment, and manipulation of the bolus;
  • impression of airway adequacy and coordination of respiration and swallowing;
  • assessment of developmentally appropriate secretion management skills, which might include frequency and adequacy of spontaneous dry swallowing and ability to swallow voluntarily;
  • assessment of behavioral factors, including but not limited to acceptance of pacifier, nipple, spoon, and cup, and range and texture of developmentally appropriate foods and liquids tolerated;
  • assessment of consistency of skills across the feeding opportunity to rule out any negative impact of fatigue on feeding/swallowing safety;
  • assessment of alterations in bolus delivery and/or use of rehabilitative/habilitative or compensatory techniques on the swallow.

Clinical Evaluation Considerations for Infants Including NICU

The clinical evaluation for infants (birth to 1 year, including those in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit [NICU]) includes evaluation of prefeeding skills, assessment and promotion of readiness for oral feeding, and evaluation of breast- and bottle- feeding ability. SLPs should have extensive knowledge about embryology, pre-natal and perinatal development, and medical issues common to the preterm and medically fragile newborn, as well as typical early infant development. The underlying neurophysiology, family-focused environment, infant-family bonding, as well as specific oral sensorimotor function, form the basis for evidence-based practice in the NICU.

The clinical evaluation of the medically fragile infant typically includes

  • a case history that includes gestational and birth history and any pertinent medical history;
  • a physical examination that includes developmental assessment, observations of physiologic and medical stability, and respiratory status;
  • the determination of oral feeding readiness by considering
    • medical stability,
    • ability to maintain physiological state,
    • ability to engage in non-nutritive sucking (NNS);
  • developmentally appropriate clinical assessments of feeding and swallowing behavior (nutritive sucking [NS]) as appropriate;
  • an assessment of suckling/swallowing problems and determination of abnormal anatomy and/or physiology associated with these findings;
  • the identification of additional disorders that impact feeding and swallowing;
  • the determination of the optimal feeding method;
  • an assessment of duration of mealtime experience, including the need for supplemental oxygen;
  • an assessment of issues related to fatigue and volume limitations;
  • an assessment of the effectiveness of parent and infant interactions for feeding and communication.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has cautioned consumers about the use of commercial, gum-based thickeners for infants from birth to 1 year of age, especially when the product is used to thicken breast milk. SLPs should be aware of these cautions and consult as appropriate in their facility to develop guidelines for using thickened liquids with infants. (See FDA consumer cautions, 2011, 2013).

Readiness For Oral Feeding

There is little consistency across or within most facilities regarding an infant's readiness for oral feeding. Likewise, there is no consistent protocol covering criteria for initiation of feedings and how the decision is made. In many NICUs, it is a unilateral decision on the part of the neonatologist; in others, the SLP, neonatologist, and nursing staff share observations during their assessments of readiness for oral feedings. The decision is based on the individual skills of each infant.

Key criteria to determine readiness to feed include

  • stability in physiologic parameters (e.g., digestive, respiratory, heart rate, and oxygenation);
  • motoric stability in the form of muscle tone, flexion, and midline movements;
  • behavioral state (ability to alert) and stability in behavioral state.

The practitioner must consider the values and beliefs of the family related to oral intake and feeding, in conjunction with the recommendations from the medical and therapeutic team, to determine the most appropriate time to initiate oral feeding.

Non-Nutritive Sucking (NNS)

Non-nutritive sucking (sucking for comfort without fluid release, as with a pacifier, finger, or recently emptied breast) does not determine readiness to orally feed, but is helpful for assessment. NNS patterns can typically be evaluated with skilled observation and without the use of instrumental assessment. A non-instrumental assessment of NNS includes evaluation of the infant's

  • oral structures and functions, including palatal integrity, jaw movement, and tongue movements for cupping and compression (lip closure is not required for infant feeding, as the tongue typically seals the anterior opening of the oral cavity);
  • ability to turn and open the mouth (rooting) when stimulated on the lips and to accept a pacifier into the mouth;
  • ability to use both compression (positive pressure of the jaw and tongue on the pacifier) as well as suction (negative pressure created with tongue cupping and jaw movement);
  • strength of compression and suction, as well as any other oral-motor dysfunction that might be related to neurological or motor disorders;
  • ability to maintain physiological state during NNS.
Nutritive Sucking (NS)

Once the NNS component of feeding has been assessed, the clinician can move toward determining the appropriateness of nutritive sucking (NS). When possible, nutritive sucking skills are assessed when the infant is engaged in breast feeding as well as bottle feeding, if both feeding modes are to be utilized, to determine how/if feeding mode impacts the quality of the infant's feeding performance. SLPs demonstrate sensitivity to familial values and beliefs regarding bottle and breast feeding and collaborate with mothers, nurses, and lactation consultants to identify parental preferences for feeding modalities. If the feeding is offered, the assessment includes evaluation of the sucking/swallowing/breathing pattern, efficiency, endurance, and infant response to feeding.

  • Sucking/swallowing/breathing pattern is critical because safety concerns (desaturation in oxygen with feedings, bradycardia or apnea with feedings, and aspiration) are of primary importance in the infant population. Any loss of stability in physiologic, motor, or behavioral state from baseline should be taken into consideration at the time of the assessment.
  • Efficiency (volume per minute) is directly related to the integration of suction and compression. Loss of fluid negatively influences efficiency and is often a reflection of the infant's attempt to manage a large bolus, rather than a marker for poor oral-motor tone. The reason for fluid loss is best determined by observing the oral-motor tone and strength during NNS, as infants with poor oral-motor tone will demonstrate similar skill deficits during NS.
  • Endurance (ability to remain engaged in the feeding to finish the required volumes) is typically a function of maturation.

The infant's communication behaviors during feeding can be used as cues to guide dynamic intervention. Cues can communicate a number of things to the caregiver, including the infant's ability to tolerate bolus size, the need for more postural support, and if swallowing and breathing are no longer synchronized. In turn, the caregiver can use these cues to optimize feeding by responding to the infant's needs at any given moment in dynamic fashion (Shaker, 2013a).


SLPs collaborate with mothers, nurses, and lactation consultants prior to assessing breast-feeding skills. The clinician needs a working knowledge base of breast-feeding strategies in order to facilitate safe, efficient breast feeding in the NICU. There are few standardized assessments for evaluating potential breast-feeding of medically fragile infants in the NICU and other clinical environments. The Management of Acute Malnutrition in Infants (MAMI) Project (n.d.) proposes a set of common factors that breast-feeding assessment tools should address, including evaluation of

  • infant's behavior,
  • infant's state, including respiratory rate and heart rate,
  • mother's behavior,
  • position of the infant,
  • nipple attachment,
  • effective/efficient feeding (efficiency of suck/swallow/breathe pattern),
  • health of breast,
  • health of infant.

The assessment of bottle-feeding includes evaluation of

  • the infant's state, including respiratory rate and heart rate,
  • suck/swallow/breathe coordination (normal or disorganized),
  • nipple type and form of nutrition,
  • infant position,
  • quantity of intake,
  • length of time infant takes for one feeding,
  • infant's response to attempted interventions.

Clinical Evaluation Considerations for Toddlers and Preschool/School-Age Children

In addition to the areas of assessment noted above, the evaluation for toddlers (1-3 years) and pre-school/school-age children (3-21 years) may include

  • review of any past diagnostic test results,
  • review of current programs and treatments, as appropriate,
  • assessment of current skills and limitations at home and in other day settings,
  • assessment of the child's willingness to participate/level of engagement,
  • evaluation of the child's independence/need for supervision and assistance,
  • use of intervention probes to identify strategies that might improve function.

Considerations for Evaluation in the School Setting

As an increasing number of high-risk infants survive and enter educational programs, school-based SLPs often play a significant role in the management of students with swallowing and feeding problems in school settings. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) (U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) mandate services for health-related disorders that affect the ability of the student to access educational programs and participate fully.

Educational Relevance

Addressing swallowing and feeding disorders is educationally relevant and part of the school system's responsibility for the following reasons.

  • Students must be safe while eating in school including having access to appropriate personnel, food, and procedures to minimize risks for choking and for aspiration while eating.
  • Students must be adequately nourished and hydrated so that they can attend to and fully access the school curriculum.
  • Students must be healthy (e.g., free from aspiration, pneumonia or other illnesses related to malnutrition or dehydration) to maximize their attendance at school.
  • Students must develop skills for eating efficiently during meals and snack times so that they can complete these activities with their peers safely and in a timely manner.

Team Approach

The school-based swallowing and feeding team consists of members who serve in the school system as well as medical professionals outside the school (e.g., physicians, dietitians, psychologist). Core members of the team, who are responsible for decisions regarding dysphagia, include the SLP, family /caregiver, classroom teacher, nurse, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and school administrator. Additional members can include the school psychologist, social worker, and cafeteria staffer.

Evaluation Process

School-based dysphagia services include a referral process, family/guardian notification and involvement, screening and evaluation, and development of an IEP and/or a 504 plan. The school system's policy manual will include policies and procedures for addressing dysphagia. The goal of a system-supported process is to develop procedures that are utilized consistently throughout a school district.


The evaluation process begins with a referral to a team of professionals within the school district who are trained in the screening, identification, and treatment of dysphagia. The referral can be initiated by a family member/guardian, school staff member, or outside professional.

Following the initial referral, the school contacts the family member/guardian to discuss the evaluation process, to obtain consent for an evaluation of the student's swallowing and feeding, and to gather information about the child's medical and health history, as well as how the student is fed at home.


Review of the referral is considered part of the screening process. The family member/guardian and teacher interviews also serve as part of the screening and evaluation process. Following the screening, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary swallowing and feeding evaluation may be warranted.


The school-based dysphagia team conducts a multidisciplinary observation and clinical evaluation of the student during snack- or meal- times at school. Modifications and/or strategies are part of the diagnostic process. The information from this evaluation may be used to draft a swallowing and feeding plan, which may be temporary depending on the need for further diagnostics.

Collaborating With Medical Professionals

The collaboration between the school-based dysphagia team and medical professionals includes consideration of whether a referral is warranted for medical assessment, medical clearance, or ongoing medical care. Typically, this consideration would arise for the student with a medically complex condition as opposed to the student with a medically stable condition, for whom special care during the school day is not specified in the Individualized Education Program (IEP), Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), 504 Plan, or Individualized Health Plan (IHP).

If the dysphagia team determines that medical assessment is advisable prior to initiation of a school-based dysphagia program or during the course of a program, they can recommend that the family seek medical consultation (e.g., for a VFSS referral and/or other medical assessments).

Although SLPs do not require a medical prescription or other form of medical approval to perform clinical evaluations or implement intervention programs, there are instances when a prescription, referral, or medical clearance may be requested from the student's primary care physician or other health care provider (e.g., when requesting VFSS or FEES evaluations). This request may be made through the family or directly to the provider (after discussion with the family), when the school has approval for direct communication with the health care providers. These requests for medical collaboration may include

  • prescription or medical clearance for clinical dysphagia assessment and/or intervention for students 
    • who receive part or all of their nutrition or hydration via enteral or parenteral tube feeding,
    • with medically complex conditions,
    • whose medical status is a significant variable for determining the appropriate assessment and treatment strategies;
  • approval of the IHP by the primary care provider or school physician for a student with medically complex needs.

Reimbursement In Schools

Some school districts submit claims to third-party payers for reimbursement of swallowing and feeding services rendered in the schools. When a SLP is the service provider, he or she is responsible for all submitted claims for those services and must understand payer requirements (e.g., state Medicaid, private health insurance) to ensure compliance. Requirements of third-party payers (which may differ from school policies) may include

  • the definition of qualified provider,
  • student eligibility for services as defined by the payer,
  • required documentation (e.g., referral, certification, and recertification by the physician; goals; and progress notes),
  • supervision of support personnel, including SLPs who are not licensed or ASHA-certified (ASHA 2004),
  • diagnosis codes and/or procedure codes for services provided.

Instrumental Evaluation

The two commonly used instrumental evaluations of swallowing for the pediatric population are

  • Videofluoroscopic Swallowing Study (VFSS),
  • Fiberoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES) with or without sensory testing to evaluate the laryngeal adductor response or LAR (Fiberoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing and Sensory Testing or FEESST).

These procedures examine swallowing dynamics under conditions that simulate eating; they are typically conducted by the SLP and physician (e.g., radiologist) as a team. Instrumental assessments performed by other professionals often help the SLP formulate his or her recommendations (e.g., by helping the clinician differentiate between aspiration resulting from swallowing and aspiration resulting from gastroesophageal reflux).

During instrumental assessment of swallowing, the clinician may use information from cardiac, respiratory, and oxygen saturation monitors to determine any changes to physiologic or behavioral condition. Other signs to monitor include color changes, nasal flaring, and sucking/swallowing/breathing patterns.

The roles of the SLP in the instrumental evaluation of swallowing and feeding disorders include

  • participating in decisions regarding the appropriateness of these procedures,
  • conducting the VFSS and FEES/FEESST instrumental procedures,
  • interpreting and applying data from instrumental evaluations to (a) determine the severity and nature of the swallowing disorder and the child's potential for safe oral feeding and (b) formulate dysphagia treatment plans, including recommendations for optimal feeding techniques;
  • being familiar with and using information from diagnostic procedures performed by different medical specialists that yield information about swallowing function. These procedures include manofluorography, cervical auscultation, scintigraphy (which in the pediatric population may also be referred to as radionuclide milk scanning), pharyngeal manometry, 24-hour pH monitoring, and esophagoscopy.
Test Environment

Procedures take place in a child-friendly environment with toys, visual distracters, rewards, and a familiar caregiver, if possible and when appropriate. Various items to facilitate success and replicate a typical mealtime experience, including preferred foods, familiar food containers, utensil options and seating options, are included in the room.

Preparing the Child
  • For the child who is able to understand, the clinician explains the procedure, the purpose of the procedure, and the test environment in a developmentally appropriate manner.
  • The clinician allows time for the child to acclimate to the room, the equipment, and the professionals who will be present for the procedure.
  • For procedures that involve presentation of a solid and/or liquid bolus, the clinician instructs the family to schedule meals and snacks so that the child will be hungry and more likely to accept foods as needed for study.

The clinician allows a period of time for the child to develop the ability to accept and swallow a bolus, if the child has not eaten by mouth (NPO); and for children who have difficulty participating in the procedure, time to bring behaviors under control prior to initiating the instrumental procedure.

Preparing Families
  • The clinician provides families and caregivers with information about dysphagia, the purpose for the study, the test procedures, and the test environment.
  • The clinician requests that the family provide
    • familiar foods of varying consistencies and taste that are compatible with contrast material (if facility protocol allows),
    • a specialized seating system from home (including car seat or specialized wheelchair) as warranted and if permitted by facility,
    • the child's familiar and preferred utensils, if appropriate.

Procedural Considerations for Instrumental Evaluations

  • Prior to the evaluation, clinicians are encouraged to collaborate with the medical team regarding feeding schedules that will maximize feeding readiness during the evaluation.
  • Children are positioned as they are typically fed at home and in a manner that avoids spontaneous or reflex movements that could interfere with the safety of the examination. Modifications to positioning are made as needed and are documented as part of the assessment findings.
  • Anxiety and crying may be an expected reaction to any instrumental procedure. Anxiety may be reduced by using distraction (eg., videos), allowing the child to sit on the parent's or caregiver's lap (for FEES procedures), and decreasing the number of observers in the room. If a natural feeding process (e.g., position, caregiver involvement, and use of familiar foods) cannot be achieved, the results may not represent typical swallow function, and the study may need to be terminated with results interpreted with caution.
  • For FEES procedures, special consideration should be given to smaller anatomical features in the infant/toddler population. The diameter of endoscopes designed for infants and children is 1.4 to 1.7 mm.
  • Infants are obligate nasal breathers, and compromised breathing may result from the placement of a fiberoptic endoscope in one nostril when a nasogastric tube is in place in the other nostril. Clinicians will discuss this with the medical team in order to determine options, including temporary removal of the feeding tube and/or use of another means of swallowing assessment.
  • Equipment for positioning for VFSS will vary depending on the size of the child and his or her medical condition (Arvedson & Lefton-Greif, 1998; Gisel, Applegate-Ferrante, Benson, & Bosma, 1996). Infants under 6 months of age typically require head, neck, and trunk support. Replication of the child's typical feeding position is attempted to the extent possible.

Special Considerations in the NICU

Although the need for instrumental assessments in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is not frequent, these procedures are recommended at times. For example, an instrumental swallowing assessment for medically stable infants who are ventilator dependent and require a tracheotomy is advantageous in promoting safe and timely oral alimentation (Leder et al., 2010). The SLP working in the NICU works collaboratively with the medical team to determine if the infant's swallowing concerns warrant instrumental examination.

Interpretation and Recommendations Following Instrumental Evaluations
  • The SLP and other team members involved in the assessment (e.g., radiologist, otolaryngologist, gastroenterologist) review the results and agree on characteristics of the swallow and on anatomical features.
  • Following team discussion, conclusions and recommendations are finalized, taking into consideration: instrumental swallowing sampling paired with results of the clinical dysphagia evaluation; adequacy of the child's swallow for eating efficiency and airway protection; the child's pulmonary health and medical status; and family beliefs and preferences.
  • Recommendations are made to compensate for physiological and anatomical abnormalities and to improve swallowing efficiency and adequacy for airway protection.
  • Recommendations consider low Laryngeal Adductor Response (LAR) in children (i.e., response only to higher pressure puffs or unresponsive in FEESST), since low LAR is correlated with recurrent pneumonia, gastroesophageal reflux, pooled secretions, laryngeal penetration and aspiration (Link, Willging, Miller, Cotton, & Rudolph, 2000).

Videofluoroscopic Swallow Study (VFSS)

VFSS, also known as modified barium swallow, is a radiographic procedure that provides a direct, dynamic view of oral, pharyngeal and upper esophageal function. During this radiographic procedure, the SLP presents food and liquid mixed with barium in order to assess the dynamic function of the oral, pharyngeal and upper esophageal function of the swallow. The barium is necessary to view structures during the swallow. The VFSS delineates the biomechanics of the swallow and the patterns of bolus motility, including but not limited to, swallow reflex time, nasopharyngeal reflux, pharyngeal clearance, and laryngeal penetration and aspiration.

When appropriate, the VFSS protocol examines the effectiveness of modifications to enhance swallowing safety/efficiency, including

  • alternating liquids with solids to improve clearance through the hypopharynx and esophagus,
  • changing positions for bottle/nipple feeding and spoon feeding, including special positional consideration for the breast fed infant. (e.g. having the infant who is typically breast fed in a side-lying position for the VFSS),
  • employing rehabilitative and compensatory maneuvers on bolus transport during swallowing,
  • modifying bolus delivery method (e.g., changes in nipples and other utensils),
  • modifying bolus delivery rate (e.g., changing nipple flow rate, external pacing altering fluid viscosity); modifications in flow rate and positioning are considered prior to viscosity changes in order to preserve typical feeding development (Gosa, Schooling, & Coleman, 2001),
  • modifying food consistency.
Indications for VFSS

Indications for VFSS include

  • the need for observing the oral preparatory, oral transit, pharyngeal and/or esophageal phases of swallowing,
  • the diagnosed or suspected presence of abnormalities in anatomy of nasal, oral, pharyngeal or upper esophageal structures that would preclude endoscopic evaluations,
  • an aversion to insertion of an endoscope,
  • the presence of a respiratory disorder and/or a persistent feeding refusal problem for which a swallowing disorder might be a contributing cause,
  • the need to determine treatment or management strategies to minimize the risk of aspiration and increase swallow efficiency (Arvedson & Lefton-Greif, 1998).
Test protocol
  • The radiologist and SLP work together to plan and conduct the study.
  • Types and consistencies of food and liquid to be used are based on results of the clinical evaluation.
  • Test materials typically are presented in a standardized order (e.g., for infants, begin with liquids since they are primarily on formula-based diets). The order of presentation may be modified at the professional's discretion for optimal cooperation and test success.
  • The child is secured in a seat that offers good head-neck and torso support.
  • The child is fed by a familiar family member or caregiver.
  • Every effort is made to maintain the child in a calm-alert state during testing.
Radiology Procedure
  • Radiation dosage
    • Acceptable radiation exposure levels are set by the radiology department and controlled by the radiologist.
    • The SLP and radiologist work together to ensure that the observations are completed within the dosage limits for the child's age; dosage amount is As Low as Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) as recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) without impacting the accuracy of the swallowing assessment. Frame rates should also be discussed.
    • Adults in the fluoroscopy suite wear protective equipment to minimize their exposure to scattered radiation. However, dosage levels for children are less than those permitted for adults and generally considered acceptable for adult observers.
  • Pregnant women might not be permitted in the examining room during the study; if permitted by the facility, a pregnancy-specific lead apron is worn. Be aware of facility guidelines.
  • Lateral and anterior-posterior views of mouth, pharynx and upper esophagus are taken as needed for each of the bolus types.
  • Ideally, at least one esophageal "follow-through" is viewed, in which the fluoroscopy camera follows the bolus as it moves through the esophagus and is propelled completely into the stomach.

Fiberoptic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing (FEES) with or without Sensory Testing (FEESST)

During the FEES procedures, a fiberoptic endoscope is inserted through the nose and into the throat to provide a direct visualization of structures as well as a dynamic view of the oral-pharyngeal transfer and an indirect evidence of the pharyngeal-esophageal transfer during swallows. Saliva swallowing can be evaluated, and the anatomy and physiology of saliva swallow can be viewed in the absence of acceptance of food and/or liquids. The swallow is then assessed with presentation of food and liquid.

The FEESST, a modification of FEES, is a test of the Laryngeal Adductor Response (LAR), a reflexive vocal fold adduction in response to a pressure- and duration-calibrated air puff delivered anterior to the arytenoids along the aryepiglottic folds. It provides an intensity level at which the LAR is elicited.

Indications for FEES Procedures

Indications for FEES procedures include

  • the need for visualizing structures as well as observing a dynamic view of the oral-pharyngeal transfer with or without presentation of food and/or liquid,
  • previous VFSS findings indicating the need for further instrumental assessment in order to formulate management strategies,
  • the child is not a good candidates for VFSS, because he or she
    • has never eaten orally
    • cannot be positioned adequately for VFSS
    • cannot be transferred to the radiology suite,
  • the need for assessing the LAR sensitivity and vocal fold dynamics.
Test Protocol
  • The appropriate endoscope size is chosen and a decision is made about whether the endoscope should be equipped with air puff capability.
  • The endoscope is then passed by the SLP or physician, and the child is given an opportunity to calm.
  • The nasal, oral, pharyngeal and laryngeal anatomy is examined.
  • FEESST is administered if indicated to determine LAR sensitivity and vocal fold dynamics.
  • The child is fed a variety of preferred and problem foods under fiberoptic observation.
  • Monitoring (e.g., cardiovascular) during FEES procedures may be warranted for children with significant pulmonary disease, cardiac arrhythmia, seizure disorders, or other medical conditions
  • It is advisable to have suction equipment available and trained personnel on hand during testing.
  • Consider the possible risks for localized nasal trauma and bleeding.
  • Special care is taken with use of topical anesthesia in medically fragile infants and children. Clinicians are encouraged to consult with the child's medical team prior to using anesthesia with these children.

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