Problem-Solving with Catherine


We had a patient last week that was born at 39 weeks and 4 days-no reported complications with birth history/birth.  He presented with frequent desaturations with feeds- dropping into the 70’s with color changes.  This would also occur with non-nutritive suck on the pacifier. The infant was transferred into the NICU.

Speech was consulted to complete MBSS to r/o aspiration.  This was the first contact speech had with this child. He was 4 days old at the time.  Patient presented with strong rooting reflex, tongue protrusion and non-nutritive suck.  He did present with desaturations into the 80’s with non-nutritive suck.  MBSS was completed using a slow flow nipple. Patient was eager to eat. Patient was able to establish non-nutritive suck without difficulty.  Patient had no aspiration, pooling, residuals during the study. He began to desat after 4-5 sucks-O2 dropped down to 70 and then patient recovered after 2 minutes.  Attempted pacing with patient leaving the nipple in the oral cavity but tilting slightly forward and also by removing the nipple from the mouth.  When nipple was left in the oral cavity patient continued sucking. Patient continued to have desats/color changes with each attempt of pacing- pacing was completed after 3 sucks. Oxygen levels dropped into the low 70’s and upper 60’s with each attempt.  Position change to side lying provided no benefit.

My concern with this patient was the frequency of the desaturations that occurred throughout the feeding.  There was also concern that patient did not receive benefit from the techniques used – slow flow, pacing, side lying position.  The feeling of the physician was that infants desat with feeds in our NICU all the time and we just needed to teach him to coordinate the SSB sequence.  The RN reported that it had taken over an hour to feed the patient using the techniques of pacing and side lying with a slow flow nipple.

My question to the group is how typical is this especially in a term infant? Is there something we can do differently to help this baby?  I am concerned with the level of stress that feeding may be causing him and how do we help to decrease this if the above techniques are not working?

We are waiting on cardiology but the feeling of the physicians is that this is just a coordination problem since it only happens with the nutritive and non-nutritive suck.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Desaturations with non-nutritive sucking in an otherwise healthy newborn is not normal. The question is, is he really a healthy newborn? The results you provide from the swallow study and your clinical assessment both suggest that, despite typical interventions (such as positional changes, co-regulated pacing and flow rate regulation), there is something about the aerobic demands of sucking that result in his inability to adequately oxygenate.

The neonatologist’s statement that “infants desat with feeds in our NICU all the time and we just needed to teach him to coordinate the SSB sequence” minimizes a critical component of completing a differential in the NICU — context and co-morbidities matter. Desaturations in and of themselves have limited meaning; the meaning of the desaturations is best understood in the context of each individual infant, his history and co-morbidities. Desaturations with the pacifier is often  for instance observed in a preterm infant with cardio-respiratory co-morbidities who is allowed to suck continuously on a pacifier; co-regulated pacing can often avert that.

The behavior this term infant presents gathers meaning, and directs the next steps in a differential, only in context: history/co-morbidities, what other behaviors co-occur with the desaturation events, as well as the important clinical data that the interventions you trialed during the swallow study did not avert the decompensation. This, then, is a very different picture than what the neo considered. The impression is one of pathology. While the infant did not aspirate or apparently mis-direct the bolus during the VFSS, the integrity of his feeding/swallowing is impaired. Competing the differential of “why “will require cardio-respiratory work up. I have seen many infants for whom impaired feeding is the impetus for a cardiology consult and often that is the unsuspected co-morbidity. Let us know what cardiology finds.

Sad that the staff fed the infant for hour. Someone was not listening to the infant’s communication, which likely showed disengagement long before. We don’t know the caregiver’s perception of her role in feeding NICU infants, but I suspect it is to get the volume in. The caregiver actions adds one more factor in a feeding/swallowing differential.

In the thread there have been mention of a couple possibilities I’d like to touch on. Offering oxygen in some cardiac presentations can actually worsen the infant’s status. Oxygen, one neo told me when I was first starting in the NICU almost 30 years ago, can be toxic. Again the neonatologist’s looking at the possible co-morbidities is essential to guiding management.

Concern that the infant may be “working too hard” using a slow flow nipple  was also mentioned. It is not uncommon for NICU nurses to share that concern as well. Actually research has shown just the opposite,that it is not the work of sucking that fatigues infants, it is the work of trying to breathe in the presence of a flow rate beyond the infant’s capacity. Studies have shown that infants who received a flow rate they can regulate actually take more volume than when offered a free flowing nipple. The concept is that during feeding, fighting the flow to breathe adversely affects ventilation, i.e., the infant breathes less often because he is spending more time swallowing; the less time spent in deep breathing, the more likely saturations are to decrease and stamina suffers. A slow flow rate is also most like the breast flow, which has been shown as well in the literature to be a key factor in maintaining physiologic stability during breastfeeding, even in tiny preterm infants. The literature regarding breast flow is quite instructive for those of us who support bottle feeding in the NICU.

So increasing flow rate for this infant, as you suspected, Ginger, would indeed make the situation worse. The fact that your interventions which are clinically sound did not improve saturations is a key factor that the neo just did not consider. If we increase the flow rate, we would see further physiologic decompensation, as he would breathe less often, perhaps we might even see true bolus mis-direction, as the infant may “open the airway” to catch a much needed breath, and then mis-direct the bolus. The infant’s physiologic stability, his ability to regulate multiple systems and his experience of the feeding would be worsened. In addition, the negative learning that has already unfortunately likely taken place would be exacerbated.

I hope this is helpful.


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