Problem-Solving: 30-month-old with Random Gagging and Altered Swallowing Physiology


Recently, I completed a MBSs on a 30-month-old child secondary to complaints of vomiting, gagging/choking at random. At age 24 months, child had tonsillectomy/adenoidectomy completed secondary to vomiting/gagging with the hopes this would correct child’s difficulties. MOC reports that this did help some however reports difficulties have not completely resolved. Per MOC, child had pacifier until age of 20 months. At time of MBSs child did consume pureed and thin liquids, they refuse all other bolus consistencies. Child noted to have a high palate arch and slightly narrowing in front of mouth. Delayed swallow to the level of the pyriform sinus was observed, suspect secondary to poor retraction and elevation of tongue to soft palate due to high arch. No penetration or aspiration noted. Appropriate ROM with tongue was observed during attempts at oral facial/motor examination. Per MOC, child is a picky eater, consumes 30oz of milk daily, will pocket food and spit it out and gag on water intermittently.

Based off of how this child presents, I would focus on lingual strengthening, age-appropriate mastication patterns and acceptance of age-appropriate foods. For a child of this age, what would your recommendations be for treatment/tasks to obtain these goals/exercises etc.? I am running into a roadblock per say. From my research and reading, I have found great ideas for older children or adults who follow verbal directives, however due to this child’s age, I am stuck!


Is the child otherwise normally developing? Is postural /sensory-motor control age-appropriate?  I am asking because sometimes this type of clinical presentation is part of a bigger sensory processing issue or part of a constellation of craniofacial alterations or alterations across developmental domains. That creates a different “bigger picture” from which to problem-solve.

Craniofacial malformations often co-occur with changes in the muscular network that supports those structures. The high arched (and sometimes “tented”) palate can co-occur as part of a genetic syndrome and can co-occur with mandibular hypoplasia. Mandibular hypoplasia alters lingual and supra/infrahyoid muscular ROM and their functional coordination.

Interestingly, I have seen across the age span that, with this clinical presentation you described, it is not uncommon to have co-occurring tethering of oral tissues. I suspect that, if there are TOTs, this may be because the formation of these structures and muscular attachments occurs around the same time in utero. Then their motor sequences are initially mapped in utero through swallowing of amniotic fluid. So, the underpinnings for a well-integrated oral-motor system are underway quite early. Maladaptive networks also start in utero and the foundations for function can then start off in infancy already altered and impact future function that “feeds forward”, as our PT colleagues call it, in motor learning. So, implications unfold overtime.

If there are tethered oral tissues, or related alterations, they can at times be more subtle. These alterations can create challenges for the emergence of motor plans along the swallow pathway, and for bolus control and manipulation. That may also provoke the air swallowing that can lead to the vomiting/emesis you report. We must of course recognize that tethered oral tissues are not always the explanation/etiology, but should be a part of your thoughtful differential, as it could explain the functional limitations you describe. As could altered oral-facial tone, an altered overriding postural network, and/or sensory integration problems, and other possibilities, depending on the unique “bigger picture” for this child. Thinking through that bigger picture will best guide targeted interventions.

A wonderful resource on the neurodevelopmental underpinnings for feeding development is included in Robyn Walsh and Lori Overland’s book on “Functional Assessment and remediation of Tethered Oral Tissues”. Even if TOTs are not part of this child’s etiology(ies), their tutorial included in their book is not just about TOTs but is a foundational must read on functional oral motor development. By two of our wonderful SLP colleagues.

The swallow study would likely reveal any alterations in base of tongue retraction and pressure generation that may be created if tethering were impacting this child’s swallow pathway. For some children, the oral phase appears most altered, but that of course can cause problems down the line such as gagging and “sudden” loss of control which mother describes, which may reflect challenges with coordination during the dynamic swallow (when the need for exquisite motor mapping is required).

The attached article by my colleague Laura Brooks that adds to our understanding of the potential implications of some of the potential alterations. Even though with your patient there was no witnessed airway invasion, there was an alteration in physiology that likely is connected somehow to the functional differences you are seeing. This may take some peeling apart layers of data through a second and third look. Or more. And it may take a while to sort out and trial the interventions that best meet your differential. And that’s ok. It’s complex but you have a good start.

Click here for Laura Brooks article

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