Problem Solving: Swallow Studies in the NICU

I recently received an email with questions from an experienced SLP posed by the neonatologists at her large level IV NICU regarding swallow studies. There are of course no black and white answers, and the evidence-base is lacking, we know, but thought I’d share my comments/perspectives.

Her questions follow. My responses are in italics:

” A lot of concern has come to light regarding how we perform MBSS.  The physicians feel it is not a fair assessment given altered positioning, transport to the fluoroscopy suite which may negatively impact regulation and physiology of these infants, and strategies used.  The swallow study is only a moment in time and looks at physiology not just aspiration (or bolus mis-direction), so, given that, the data we can extrapolate during an instrumental assessment may be more useful, than they realize, to help complete a differential and develop a plan of care. 

Would you mind answering the following:

1. Do you always assess in sidelying?  If semi-reclined, do you start that way and transition into sidelying routinely or if you feel this position may change outcomes? If swaddled elevated sidelying is the typical positon the infant is fed in, yes; if not, I would look at typical position, and then determine if objectifying sidelying as a helpful intervention is indeed justified by the added exposure, based on physiology observed, co-morbidities and interventions trialed.

  2. Do you feed for a certain time frame or percentage of the volume that infant consumes bedside, prior to the study To build in a fatigue factor, I would observe briefly under fluoroscopy at the start of feeding and then feed off line with periodic imaging as indicated for that infant’s differential and based on what is typical for him. That way we see physiology at the start and then intermittently to objectify impact of fatigue on physiology over time.

3. Are there parameters for duration between studies if you note significant clinical improvements during bedside feeds? I typically image as infrequently as possible. If we are not chasing the ‘aspiration” event but rather assessing physiology in radiology, my sense is we then focus on and ask ourselves what component(s) of the etiology (or etiologies) observed on the previous study may have changed in the interim. And if the etiology or etiologies have not resolved, why radiate the infant again with little potential for change in physiology? Too many MDs want us to keep repeating studies to “look for aspiration” and therefore if we “just do one more study” maybe we won’t capture aspiration, right? And then we don’t “capture aspiration” in that moment, and someone concludes incorrectly, therefore, that the infant “passes”, is “safe to feed”, is “cleared to eat”?? That is the thinking I believe that incorrectly follows when the procedure is inadvertently presented as such or viewed as such. That is not the best use of the procedure nor in the infant’s best interest when we look at the “cost ” long-term of added radiation (which we know the AAP is quiet concerned about, especially with infants). The type of “revised” thinking that I am advocating for is often out of the box for many of our neonatologists, but I find that once we have this level of critical reflective thinking and dialogue with neonatologists, then they better understand the role of physiology (normal versus altered versus impaired) and the judicious use of video fluoroscopic swallowing studies in the NICU. They too can learn to look beyond aspiration if we guide them. But it starts with us and these conversations. The dynamic nature of swallowing in the context of the infant’s co-morbidities must always ground us and guide our clinical reasoning.

I hope this is helpful to my NICU colleagues!


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