Problem Solving: Multiple co-morbidities in the NICU

I have performed a swallow evaluation on a 36 week preterm on supplemental O2 1L 21%Fio2 almost a week ago ( he was 35 at the time). The report I received was that the baby was not interested in PO. However, my assessment with slow flow nipple with the use of side lying and strict external pacing. 1 suck one swallow / cough and choke followed by desaturation to low 80s. Recover in 20 seconds. The next two sessions Dr. Brown preemie with 5 minutes of short sucking bursts with pacing every suck with desaturation to 50%!!! Self-corrected with some external help after almost 30 second. My recommendation is to hold PO feed until next week, RNs did not like that and told me today that they tried last night and he took 11 mL and choked and desaturated several times. My question is: is it really worth it? I don’t plan on doing a video swallow study because I know he aspirates, I am just waiting for him to May be mature a little bit and hopefully with time his swallow function and respiratory status will improve. Other than slow flow nipple/ external pacing and side lying, what other strategies we can implement to help this little guy?
He does very well in NNS via pacifier.


We need to know more about his history, especially his GA and his co-morbidities, respiratory hx and behaviors (hx of ventilation?  Progression to low flow nasal cannulae – was it difficult for him to wean? Baseline RR and WOB at rest, WOB with pacifier? is he on any diuretics? hx of PDA ligation?), his postural control and state regulation, for example, to problem-solve.

Knowing he is 36 weeks PMA and having adverse overt events is indeed concerning. Without the bigger context of his hx, it makes it challenging to complete a differential. A set of data in the context of a different history and a different set of co-morbidities will often yield a different POC.

In my experience it is not typical or a variant of maturity at 36 weeks PMA to display the physiologic decompensation you and RNs report, especially given the interventions described. If they are going to continue to feed him we need to objectify the swallowing physiology. A swallow study would not be to see if he aspirates. It should allow us, as Jim Coyle has taught us, to look for a biomechanical impairment and any form of bolus mis-direction, not just airway mis-direction, that may lead to the decompensation observed and then allow us to objectify the impact of carefully titrated interventions, and to determine the etiolog(ies) for bolus mis-direction or perhaps prolonged breath holding.

Tell us more 🙂
I hope this is helpful.


Follow up response from therapist:

Thank you so much Catherine for responding to my post. Here is more information:

His GA 27/ 2 days with RDS with APGAR 1 minute 8 – 5 minutes 9 He  was placed on NCPAP  for a week then followed by HFNC for a couple of more weeks. This last month, he has been on O2 NC ( 1L / FIO2 21 %. ECHO was done 3 weeks ago with small PDA. Baby is also SGA.  Chest X-ray about two weeks ago : moderate diffuse interstitial and airspace disease. last week, improved resolution of the bilateral pulmonary opacities.  They just started him on Diuretics on May 28th. He had two HUS that were normal. This baby is in a very calm state, does not show hunger cues and/or hand to mouth exploration. He does have a root reflex. He is alert the entire feed, not very engaged though. He has very short sucking bursts 2-3  this poor thing is very cautious with his sucking as  if he knows it is not going to go well. So he is not really that eager feeder that goes to town and forgets to breathe. His suck strength and length with a pacifier is excellent. And state regulation is normal with the pacifier. Oral exam is unremarkable. About the formal swallow study, your point is reasonable. However from my previous experience in this NICU. The information that I get from the study is oftentimes misinterpreted and used against my judgment. I had a baby in the past that I did a video swallow study on and he had consistent penetration 50% of the time with the slow flow nipple / 10 % of the time with Dr. Brown preemie and my recommendations was to use Dr. Brown Preemie with side lying and provide 5 minutes break before resuming the last 10 ccs (because that is when the baby gets disorganized and start choking) and the baby ended up NPO for PEG placement. They concluded that the baby is micro aspirating and no matter what I say and how I explain it. RNs just would not feed him. I would see him for his AM feed and that is about all he got all week long until he was transferred to a different hospital for the PEG placement. I tried to contact the mother to educate her about her son’s condition and how he can still bottle feed and she was so busy, would not return my call.  I might sound unreasonable but I am considering the study as the last resort, perhaps after a couple of more weeks when I know that that is as good as it gets!


Follow-up response from Catherine:

Thanks for the great detailed history. This helps me focus and use the infant’s specific history and co-morbidities to guide my thoughts. I find that every day in the NICU this is the process that best supports my critical thinking 🙂

I am not surprised that he is under 28 weeks given the complex clinical presentation you described in your original post. His respiratory course described and the fact that he still requires flow and is on chronic diuretics suggest that respiratory co-morbidities are paramount; he may indeed have met the criteria for CLD. The PDA, though it is small is also likely driving increased WOB.

Some of his disengagement you describe (“not showing hunger cues) may be due to WOB , even if it appears somewhat subtle at times, which can often inhibit the  drive to suck. This is a likely etiology given that his non-nutritive suck is described as well-developed and effective. I find this is often the case with our infants with significant respiratory co-morbidities and often our “healthy preterms” as well. Sometimes “sucking skill” can actually predispose such infants to bolus mis-direction. That is why focusing on the suck as the focal point for a feeding assessment can be limiting, or even cause one to label a pattern such as “wide jaw excursions with sucking”  as arbitrarily “pathologic/abnormal” when it is actually may be for that infant, an  adaptive/purposeful behavior that the infant uses in response to swallow-breathe incoordination. You make  a great example of the short sucking bursts you describe that he uses — he is “very cautious with his sucking as  if he knows it is not going to go well”–that is, the short sucking bursts do not reflect pathology –i.e.,  the inability to sustain a long sucking burst–though some may think it is pathology if they just focus on his sucking without looking at the context/co-morbidities. Actually for him, the short sucking bursts reflect “good thinking” on his part, as I say, to parents 🙂

I was especially impressed by the fact that despite your interventions, he continues to have adverse overt events. For many preterms, slow flow rate with contingent co-regulated pacing as you describe can avert decompensation. We always as NICU SLPs use those interventions, and don’t rush to radiology, but when the fundamental interventions do not ameliorate the decompensation, that is highly concerning, as you undoubtedly told your NICU staff. Every experience the infant has matters. So if they continue to feed him and each time he experiences negative learning, he is wiring his brain away from eating. We know the neurons that fire together wire together. It is highly likely that continued feeding under these “conditions” can be a pathway to aversions down the road. that’s where some  researchers are focusing:

Smith G.C., Gutovich, J. et al (2011) Neonatal intensive care unit stress is associated with brain development in preterm infants .Annals of Neurology. 70(4), 541-549.

Thoyre, S.M. (2007) Feeding outcomes of extremely premature infants after neonatal intensive care. JOGNN, 36(4): 366-375.

By advocating to obtain objective data via an instrumental assessment, you will have more information to rule in or rule out what the possible etiologies might be, what specifically may be happening to predispose him to bolus mis-direction and then observe if any further interventions (e.g., maybe only single sucks at a time for now?) serve to avert the negative experiences. If we do not advocate for further workup, they will likely continue to feed him as they are, and at what cost to the infant, and we don’t fully understand his physiology. Sometime s infants with this presentation are purposefully using a delay in swallow initiation to get that last breath in, much like COPD-ers. Knowing that, i.e., why the events might be occurring, is important and guides interventions.

I so understand your frustration with the responses we sometimes received to our recommendations after both clinical and instrumental assessments. But the only way we change that is to keep having dialogue and trying our best for each patient as you are trying to do. it is always a journey working in the NICU, I say, not a destination -)  I have these same struggles every day. I worry for him that if you wait to sort this out until  “after a couple of more weeks”, his learning and outcomes could be altered quite adversely.

Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness and this interesting but unfortunately too common dilemma. I hope this is helpful and apologize it is so long! As you can see, the NICU is my passion and I love problem-solving.


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