While it’s perfectly normal for newborns to occasionally cough or choke while feeding or for toddlers to cry during mealtimes, ongoing issues with these symptoms may signal a swallowing disorder, which is medically known as dysphagia.
As pediatric speech therapists, the experienced team here at Celebrations Speech Group counts swallowing disorders as one of the many conditions that fall under our area of expertise. Dysphagia can be difficult to spot, especially among children who are unable to articulate the problem, which is why we thought we’d take this opportunity to highlight six of the more common signs that a swallowing disorder may be present.
Swallowing disorders by the numbers
Before we get into the symptoms, let’s take a look at some of the numbers surrounding the prevalence of swallowing disorder among children. The overall incidence rate isn’t terribly high — just 0.9% of children between the ages of three and 17. Where these numbers tend to rise is among children who have developmental disorders, in which case prevalence rises to between 30% and 80%. As an example, children who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are five times more likely to have a swallowing disorder than those who do not have ASD.
The reason why we present these numbers is that parents of children with a developmental disorder should be more vigilant when it comes to spotting dysphagia.
Six common signs of a swallowing disorder
The signs of a swallowing disorder can vary as children grow and go from breastfeeding to eating solid foods on their own, but there are some universal signs for which you should be on the lookout, including:
1. Coughing, choking, or gagging
If your child routinely coughs, gags, or chokes while feeding, this is one of the hallmarks of dysphagia. The coughing, gagging, or choking may occur while they’re eating or afterward as they try to clear food from their esophagus.
Another common sign of a swallowing disorder is regurgitation, which is slightly different than vomiting. With vomiting, your child’s abdominal muscles contract and force food or liquid back up. With regurgitation, the effort comes more easily from the muscles in their throat. The food can also exit through their nose.
3. Breathing issues
This symptom is one that’s easier to spot among newborns as they breastfeed, but breathing issues are often present in children of any age who have dysphagia. You may notice that your child “pants” while they eat or becomes congested after eating or feeding.
4. Crying during mealtimes
Most newborns settle around feeding time, but if you notice that your baby more often cries, instead, this could be a sign that there’s something amiss with their feeding as it’s become an unpleasant experience.
As your child becomes a toddler, they may still cry during mealtimes or fuss and avoid coming to the table.
5. Taking longer to eat
Growing children often feed hungrily, but if you notice that your child often takes their time while they eat (more than 30 minutes), this may run far deeper than not liking certain foods.
6. Difficulty initiating swallowing
This last sign of a swallowing disorder is one that should be easy to recognize if you study your child while they eat. If you see that it often takes several attempts to initiate swallowing, this is a clear sign that a swallowing disorder may be present.
This list of symptoms is by no means comprehensive, but it lays a good groundwork for spotting a potential swallowing disorder.
For a definitive diagnosis and treatment of dysphagia, we urge you to contact one of our locations in Brentwood, Stockton, or Elk Grove, California, to set up a consultation.