Problem-Solving: Onset of severe oral aversion in the NICU


I currently have an infant who has low tone with severe oral aversion impacting P.O feeding. The infant was previous a great feeder but needed to be intubated. Since then, the nursing staff reported poor feeding skills, and I noted poor tolerance of positive tactile stimuli to her checks and non-nutritive sucking for calming. I was wondering if you have any strategies to improve the tolerance of oral stimuli when an infant has an aversion combined with low tone.


Will share some thoughts and also some questions. My mind starts right away asking questions to help me start a “differential” as one of neonatology colleagues taught me many years ago. I am so grateful that she took the time to help me problem-solve in a way that physicians are taught. It has really helped me dialogue with the neonatologists.

What is the etiology for the hypotonia? Is this a former preterm or a sick newborn and what are the co-morbidities that would lead to the need for interval intubation? The bigger picture is likely relevant to sorting this out. Why was she recently intubated? It is uncommon for brief interval intubation to completely “change” the oral sensory system. Maybe it isn’t the intubation that is causal but co-occurring events such as the pressure to “get back to PO” ?  or co-morbidity-related? Could this be r/t well-intentioned pushing to feed post extubation? How is she being fed now? “PO all” attempts despite adverse responses? Depending on how volume driven versus infant-guided your unit is, that may be adding fuel to the fire. Are they still trying to PO? I wonder if any of her maladaptive behaviors started as adaptive behaviors (i.e., not wanting to PO d/t breathing too fast at that moment, flow rate too fast, fluid moving toward the airway) unbeknownst to the caregiver feeding her…? Infants do things for a reason as you know and it is often physiologic, so looking from that perspective always informs us.

I wonder if being a “great feeder” for the nurses was a volume-related commentary versus one reflecting quality of feeding? maybe there have been qualitative issues all along that were not apparent.

If she is currently PO, I’d want to just be present when RN feeds and learn along with the infant and nurse about the feeding relationship with the caregiver to help inform your differential. May need a true break from PO, such that for now PO only with a therapist (to reset her sensory system and then attempt to progress back to infant-guided positive PO feeding from a better baseline of oral-sensory readiness).

Will she accept her own hands to face in a swaddled side lying position, ensuring WOB is not problematic? I’d start there as it’s likely tolerated best, and you can facilitate firm deep pressure (versus light touch, which may be processed as more averse). Look at her big picture as the foundational data set. Then listen to the infant. She can likely tell us the “why” or at least lead us in the right direction.

Hope this helps.


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