Problem-Solving: Thickening Post VFSS


I work in a pediatric hospital, and we’ve been running into difficulty when it comes to the recommendation to thicken liquids. Our speech dept procedure is not to recommend or endorse a specific product and place that responsibility on the physicians after we relay the MBS results. Often GI doctors are more comfortable with thickening choices, contra-indications, etc. but our pulmonologists and cardiologist feel that they do not have the training to make those choices and don’t feel comfortable. As a dept we want to support our doctors and I was hoping another facility has run into this issue or addressed it and could share their processes. Thank you!


It is important I think to discuss options with families and providers, and consider home environment, access, cultural preference, caregiver capability and potentially the providers don’t have that insight. This goes a long way towards recommendations and strategies that are more likely to be carried out by families. Along the way we help providers who are not GI specialists benefit from our problem-solving and our ability to bring the current evidence-base to the conversation.

I rarely thicken liquids these days. When it is indicated as a last-resort intervention, based on objective data regarding pathophysiology and potential airway invasion observed during the VFSS in the setting of that child’s co-morbidities, I find a few things quite helpful.

During the VFSS, we have likely utilized particular thickeners that give us objective data about their impact, have flow tested the liquids with those thickeners, and have some impression as to what may be optimal (risk-benefit ratio from swallowing perspective). We might then offer that data as a part of the problem-solving discussion with the physician/team, recognizing that the prescriptive nature of what is ultimately determined by the physician’s order will be a biproduct of further discussion. This is an opportunity to collaborate about patient care and builds relationships with the medical team. This bringing together of each professional’s data and perspective has been referred to as “cross-fertilization”. I love that term and its implications for how we practice or might optimally practice as lifelong learners. With cross-fertilization, everyone’s engagement exposes all professionals to different bodies of scientific literature knowledge, as that supports collaborative practice. We all benefit from these exchanges, especially our patients and families.

Another resource to share with physicians that is, to my knowledge, part of the latest evidence-base we have available, is this wonderful paper by the team at Boston Childrens, including Kara Larson SLP and two amazing GI docs. As it states, the purpose of this review is to discuss current knowledge and recent findings regarding clinical aspects of thickeners for pediatric gastroesophageal reflux and oropharyngeal dysphagia. We review evidence for thickener efficacy, discuss types of thickeners, practical considerations when using various thickeners, and risks and benefits of thickener use in pediatrics.  

Duncan, D. R., Larson, K., & Rosen, R. L. (2019). Clinical aspects of thickeners for pediatric gastroesophageal reflux and oropharyngeal dysphagia. Current Gastroenterology Reports21(7), 1-9.

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