Problem-Solving with Catherine

Hi Marla,

I am late weighing in on this interesting discussion. At the end of that post you asked about protocols for “infants with swallowing dysfunction in terms of breastfeeding”.

I am assuming you are asking about infants who are bottle-feeding and breastfeeding and had a swallow study done that showed an impairment or alteration in swallowing physiology with bottle-feeding that resulted in bolus- misdirection and potentially aspiration?

An infant may indeed have an alteration or impairment in his underlying swallowing physiology that will adversely affect the biomechanics of swallowing and lead to bolus mis-direction both toward/into the laryngeal and/or nasopharyngeal airway. In infants of course, who are by nature obligate nasal breathers, the mis-direction and its etiolog(ies) must be carefully considered.

Because of the unique physiology of breastfeeding, it is uncommon that infants will show overt decompensation with breastfeeding but possible. I have found clinically that those infants who decompensate during breastfeeding often have a true alteration or impairment in swallowing physiology. Breastfeeding is actually easier than bottle feeding, even for preemies, so it is possible an infant may not experience an alteration or impairment of swallowing physiology at breast though it was observed in radiology with bottle-feeding. Take a look at the multiple “gold standard’ writings of Paula Meier, Goldfield and Nyquist regarding the unique physiology of breastfeeding suggesting it is likely most supportive of airway protection for infants.

My clinical experience and reading of the literature has lead me to hypothesize  that those infants whose etiology for impaired swallowing physiology is flow rate and/or coordination of suck-swallow-breathe, in the presence of normal structural integrity of the airway and oral-pharyngeal mechanism, may do quite well with breastfeeding. Breastfeeding optimizes flow rate regulation and provides “windows of opportunity” for breathing so well described by Goldfield; it is this then that likely optimizes bolus control. However when there are issues with structural integrity of the airway (i.e. vocal cord paresis/paralysis, laryngomalacia, tracheomalacia) the “protective nature” of breastfeeding may no longer be realized, if you will.

There is no way to study my hypothesis since we cannot observe breastfeeding under fluoroscopy. However, working closely with pulmonologists, ENTs and neonatologist’s, we have together carefully considered each infant, his co-morbidities and what we know from the science of breastfeeding to inform our decisions about breastfeeding given objective data obtained during bottle-feeding.

I suspect your question, which is a good one, may have been prompted by infants who had a swallow study with the bottle from which “aspiration” findings are being generalized to breastfeeding. I don’t think it’s that simple, as I hope my thoughts above suggest.

Unfortunately the complexity of the infants we follow requires us to pause, and think in the “gray zone” as I like to call it. No quick answers but rather reflection, carefully weighing that infant’s history, co-morbidities, clinical and instrumental findings and the evidence-base to complete a solid differential. From there, we dialogue with the team to develop a plan of care and interventions to hopefully minimize risk while optimizing both neuroprotection, skill progression and the infant-mother relationship. It is a challenging balancing act every day for us and so we keep asking questions and learning

I hope this provides some food for thought and is helpful.

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