March 14th, 2018, is Swallowing Awareness Day. Like breathing, swallowing is an essential reflex. Did you know humans swallow at least 900 times a day?

We swallow approximately three times an hour during sleep, once per minute while awake and even more often during meals.

Courtney Tideman, Early Connections Port Macquarie / Hastings new Speech Pathologist tells us more about swallowing difficulties in early childhood.

Why is Swallowing Awareness Day an important day on the Speech Pathology calendar?

Speech Pathologists are aware that swallowing difficulties impact us across our lifespan. Speech Pathology Australia estimates 1 million Australians will have swallowing difficulties at some point in their lives. Speech Pathologists are the professionals you will see for support if your child has a feeding or swallowing difficulty. People who have trouble swallowing are at risk of poor nutrition and dehydration, while babies and children may not take in enough nutrients to support growth and brain development. We want to increase the awareness of these difficulties in the community and encourage seeking help quickly.

What are the key signs to look for in your baby or child?

  • You may notice your child is not breastfeeding or losing a lot of weight – this is a sign to seek help.
  • It can be a problem with keeping the lips closed so that food, liquid or saliva doesn’t dribble out.
  • It can be an avoidance of texture increase as children develop.
  • Coughing, gagging or choking when your child is eating and/or drinking.
  • Temperatures, with a persistent cough or chest infection.
  • Swallowing difficulties can mean food, drinks or saliva gets into the lungs and this can cause lung infections (pneumonia).
  • Reflux is a problem where the valves in the oesophagus causes the contents of the stomach (like food, drink or stomach acid) to come back up, sometimes reaching as far up as the throat and mouth.
  • Restricted diet as child develops.

If any of these signs are occurring for your child, please contact your GP for an immediate appointment.

Can you tell us more about Dysphagia?

Dysphagia is the term we use for children who have difficulty or discomfort when swallowing. Dysphagia is any problem with: sucking, swallowing, drinking, chewing, eating, controlling saliva, taking medication, or protecting the lungs from food and drink ‘going the wrong way’.

Swallowing skills develop from birth. Babies drink milk from their mother’s breast or a bottle, requiring them to use muscles in their lips, tongue, jaw and cheeks. The infant holds the nipple at the back of their mouth and the milk triggers the swallow reflex. When children start to eat solid food, they learn to move the food from the front of the mouth to the back to trigger the same swallowing reflex. Chewing is also important – food mixes with saliva and is broken into tiny pieces so that it forms a soft slippery ball that is easy to safely swallow. The bolus of food or fluid travels down the oesophagus to the stomach and is sealed off for digestion.

What are the causes of feeding and swallowing disorders?

There are many possible causes for feeding and swallowing problems, including:

  • Neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy or meningitis
  • Reflux or other stomach problems
  • Premature birth or having a low birth weight
  • Cleft lip or palate
  • Breathing difficulties such as asthma or other diseases
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders
  • Head and neck problems
  • Muscle weakness in the face and/or neck
  • Sensory issues
  • Behavioural difficulties

What kind of therapy do you provide for children with difficulties?

Treatment for swallowing difficulties are individualised based on the specific needs of the client, their age and ability. We often work with Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists or Psychologists to achieve the safest environments and cater for sensory needs. Different treatments may include, but are not limited to:

  • changing the texture of foods
  • changing the thickness of drinks
  • desensitisation of textures
  • improving positioning
  • desensitisation to food presentation
  • using different utensils, cups, plates and/straws to increase safety and independence
  • food play and fun
  • motor strength and coordination activities
  • using picture visuals to support
  • encouraging positive eating routines at home

If you have concerns contact us for an assessment.