Feeding and Swallowing

Private Speech Pathologists Association of WA

What is a Feeding or Swallowing Problem?

Swallowing is a complex process starting with taking food from an implement (E.g. breast, bottle, spoon, fork etc) into the mouth, transferring it through the mouth and throat and swallowing it into the oesophagus. Difficulties can occur anywhere during the process and at any age from birth to the elderly.

What Causes Feeding or Swallowing Difficulties?

Swallowing problems may be associated with a wide range of developmental and/or medical conditions. Some of the more common conditions that affect swallowing include:

  • Premature birth or developmental delay
  • Anatomical or structural abnormalities, such as cleft lip and palate
  • Anatomical or structural changes, such as surgery for cancer
  • Respiratory problems
  • Gastro-enterology problems (E.g. Reflux)
  • Heart conditions
  • Neurological disorders (E.g. cerebral palsy, syndromes, stroke, head injury, muscle weakness, progressive neurological conditions)
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Genetic conditions
  • Dementia and cognitive decline
  • Prolonged use of some drugs

What Are Some Types of Swallowing Difficulties?

Swallowing difficulties may take many forms, including:

  • Refusing or leaving food
  • Unusual postures when trying to swallow food
  • Unchewed foods left in the mouth
  • Dribbling of saliva or food and fluids
  • Coughing when eating and drinking
  • History of chest infections and or aspiration / pneumonia
  • Weight loss or a failure to thrive
  • Unclear speech as the same muscles which are used for talking are used for eating and swallowing
  • Cognitive deficits which affect concentration or safe eating
  • Taking long periods of time to complete feeds/meals

What is a Speech Pathologist’s Role in the Management of Feeding or Swallowing Difficulties?

Speech Pathologists usually work as part of a multidisciplinary team when managing feeding or swallowing problems. Their role includes assessment of the process of eating, muscles used and diet. Intervention may include recommendation of strategies, modified diet and equipment to maximise safe eating and maintaining adequate nutrition and hydration.
It is always advisable that a person experiencing swallowing problems consults their Child Health Nurse or doctor, to indicate the most appropriate course of treatment.

Further Information

A description of feeding and swallowing difficulties in children.

A description of swallowing difficulties in adults.