Question: I work in a NICU and am having difficulty with one of the Neonatologists. He changes nipple flow rates to see if volume will improve despite detailed documentation from therapists and nurses related to poor feeding quality, liquid loss, disengagement, occasional coughing and wet breathing with the faster flow nipple. Orders are changed requiring caregivers to use the faster nipple basically tying their hands behind their back regarding following the infants lead. I still use the slower nipple regardless and try to educate. Last time this happened, we spoke to the ‘head physician’ and were told that although my services were consulted, it’s is the physician’s decision to make. The question I want to throw out is…. In this case, is it expected that I sign off as the recommendations are not followed after education and discussions? Do I stay on to provide quality oral experiences 3-5 feedings per week, only? Not sure what the expectation is at this point.
Answer: This is unfortunately a more common situation than one might think. As I travel to teach about the NICU across the US and beyond, all too often this is a topic of discussion, as many SLPs who are part of NICU teams experience such a dilemma. Volume driven feeding in the NICU continues to be a challenge to neuroprotection and swallowing safety, and creates not only concerns for airway invasion but also learned aversions and maladaptive behaviors. The push to “get babies out”, lack of awareness and/or understanding of current research, combined with old habits of “getting it in”, combine to make our work in the NICU both challenging, at times disheartening and at times exhausting. Continuing to bring the research, using each consult as an opportunity to dialogue and letting the medical team “think along with you” about physiology, medical co-morbidities in the NICU and their relationship to feeding/swallowing, using guided participation with nurses and partnering with RNs who “get it” continue to be ways we can articulate our value. But in these situations as you describe, there is no clear answer. One option is to sign off, but then we cannot even advocate to protect the infant, support parent learning and reconsideration of their infant’s communication, identify onset of resulting aversions, or try to optimize safety with interventions. And we often cannot continue the dialogue about that infant and his response to the faster flow that may continue to go unrecognized by well-intentioned caregivers. And we lose an opportunity to turn the tide. I recognize it is a high and strong tide, one I have been dealing with since 1985 when I first set foot in a neonatal intensive care unit. Our resilience matters for the preterm and sick term infants in our care in the NICU, and their futures. Working in the NICU is indeed a step at a time each day, and requires much of those who choose to be there. The changes one can see over time keep us going and we support each other to have the courage and confidence to do so. I hope this helps