Problem Solving: Preterms with possible tongue tie

Question:

I am feeding a bit frustrated and just curious what others are thinking. I recently worked with twins in the NICU:  born at 24 + 6, BPD, one with history of bowel perforation and IVH grade II and the other with PVL. Both had G tubes placed while in NICU.  I did VFSS on both while in NICU. One did well with small volumes; she was able to DC home with small amounts of thin liquids via preemie nipple and small amounts of breast feeding. She was making slow but steady gains and showed good comfort.   The other one had some difficulty with swallow safety with abnormal VFSS.  He DC to home on small volumes thickened liquids via bottle and mom was also working on small trials of breast feeding with him as well.  Wonderful parents.  The babies had fantastic and very consistent RNs during their NICU stay; it was one of those times where you felt like everything was working well for these babies with histories of extremely preterm births and multiple co-morbidities.  The parents set up OP therapy services right away; they were told fairly quickly that both babies had tongue / lip / cheek ties and would benefit from a consult with a dentist to do the releases. The RN and neonatology staff came to me immediately and questioned this as the parents had reached out to them with concern.  I advised then to suggest the parents get a second opinion from one our ENTs who routinely work with our NICU babies during their stays and on follow up.  Thoughts?

Answer:

We do see preterm infants with lip and tongue ties that can adversely affect lingual thinning and cupping and effectiveness of tongue-palate seal. This in turn can lead to diminished volume transfer and lead to early fatigue, as the ineffective effort yields less than ideal intake and tires the infant. The infants you describe however also clearly have additional/other potential etiologies for their limited PO intake (24 weeks, CLD, GI and neuro co-morbidities).

The possible restrictions as identified by the OP SLP, if they are indeed present, could further contribute to their feeding challenges. However, the ties in and of themselves, if they are present, are likely not the reason these infants required G-Tubes, rather, their co-morbidities were. The ties would create further struggle.

Unfortunately, depending on how the OP SLP explained her concerns to the parents and how much she considered the co-morbidities these twins present (which are known to highly influence feeding success), there may have been the impression created that the G-Tubes were “not necessary”. The OP SLP may have been clear that the ties would create further challenges and weren’t the primary problem, yet the family, wanting to hear the G-Tubes were “never necessary”, took away a much different message. The NICU team (who hopefully recognizes the co-morbidities these twins presented are associated with increased G-Tube requirements), had an obligation to explain (or re-explain) the bigger picture to the family –i.e., co-morbidities matter when it comes to feeding (research shows that), and,  if there are indeed ties, which can unfortunately be missed at times, then correcting the ties, if ENT chooses to do so, would not change the need for the G-Tubes.

It is all too easy to instead assume that missing the ties, if they indeed exist, is why the infants received G-Tubes. Well-intentioned NICU staff may have reacted without understanding that “co-morbidities matter” (this is my most-used mantra during my NICU work and teaching) — but they do! Too often it seems co-morbidities don’t matter, as decisions/prognoses/plans about feeding are made by the medical team without regard to the infant’s co-morbidities. I find if we follow the co-morbidities, then our differential, prognosis and plans for these infants are likely to be appropriate.

I would reach out to the OP SLP, find out what she noted as indications of ties exist that might have been missed, share insights regarding the stamina and co-morbidities that created the need for GTube while you followed them in the NICU, and build a relationship through which there can be sharing and learning.  

I would also follow-up with my NICU colleagues to continue the conversation and reinforce the bigger picture that I referenced above. Too often SLPs can become the “reason” a preemie gets a GTube, or so it seems. This notion, which can discredit us as a profession or as individuals unfortunately in the eyes (and voices!) of some team members, and then by connection, some families, will change only with continued conversations. This is one of those times, Linda. Your likely recommendation for a GTube during their NICU stay wasn’t made lightly and I am confident was appropriate. The dialogue you have now is important for you, your team and for families fortunate to have your care in the future.

I hope this is helpful.

Catherine

 

Research Corner: Sensory Processing Disorders and Former Preterms

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study to describe the incidence of sensory processing disorder in former preterm infants at age 4-6 years. They also sought to define medical and socioeconomic factors associated with sensory processing disorder and examine relationships between neurobehavior at term and later sensory processing disorder. The study enrolled thirty-two preterm infants born <30 weeks and conducted neurobehavioral assessment using the NICU Network Neurobehavioral Scale (NNNS) at term equivalent age, and the Sensory Processing Assessment for Young Children (SPA) at 4-6 years of age.

In this sample, 50% of children presented with a sensory processing disorder at age 4-6 years based on SPA scores. Additionally, the study did not identify any association between sensory processing disorder and medical and socioeconomic factors including gestational age at birth, sex, cerebral injury, presence of NEC or PDA, amount of respiratory support, days on TPN, surgeries, race, type of insurance, maternal age at birth, and maternal marital status. They did, however, find that more sub-optimal reflexes, and more signs of stress on the NNNS at term equivalent age was associated with having a sensory processing disorder at age 4-6 years.

The authors discuss the role of the NICU environment on the developing sensory system of the preterm infant, noting that sensory development begins in utero, but must continue to develop in the NICU, where their sensory systems can be bombarded with stimuli for which they are not developmentally prepared. They also note “it is unclear whether these early markers are indicative of the impairment that followed, or if the early impairment identified on the neurobehavioral exam resulted in altered sensory experiences, leading to subsequent sensory processing disorder.” This study demonstrates that standardized neurobehavioral testing can help identify those infants most at risk for sensory processing disorder in childhood.

Ryckman, J., Hilton, C., Rogers, C., & Pineda, R. (2017). Sensory processing disorder in preterm infants during early childhood and relationships to early neurobehavior. Early Human Development, 113, 18-22.

 

Research Corner: GE Reflux and NG Tubes in Infants

Take a look at this article hot off the press:

Murthy, S. V. et al  (2017). Nasogastric Feeding Tubes May Not Contribute to Gastroesophageal Reflux in Preterm Infants. American Journal of Perinatology

Findings: The presence of a 5-French NG tube is not associated with an increase in GER or acid exposure in preterm infants. In fact, it appears that infants fed through an NG tube have fewer episodes of GER.

This is surprising to me, and brings us new information to inform our practice with infants.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

 

Research Corner: Neonatal Microbiome and Feeding Readiness in NICU

Wanted to share this fascinating article just published about the neonatal microbiome. Abstract below. Article attached. Some take a ways: Important that we advocate for and facilitate KMC ( kangaroo mother care) and use of expressed breastmilk when possible. And advocate for our involvement early on for those fragile infants for whom weaning respiratory support will  be a prominent initiative, and safe and successful feeding remain the most complex task required for discharge to home.

Hope this informs your practice like it did mine.

Nursing care of the neonate in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is complex, due in large part to various physiological challenges. A newer and less well-known physiological consideration is the neonatal microbiome, the community of microorganisms, both helpful and harmful, that inhabit the human body. The neonatal microbiome is influenced by the maternal microbiome, mode of infant birth, and various aspects of NICU care such as feeding choice and use of antibiotics. The composition and diversity of the microbiome is thought to influence key health outcomes including development of necrotizing enterocolitis, late-onset sepsis, altered physical growth, and poor neurodevelopment. Nurses in the NICU play a key role in managing care that can positively influence the microbiome to promote more optimal health outcomes in this vulnerable population of newborns.

 

Rodriguez, J. et al  (2017). The Neonatal Microbiome: Implications for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Nurses. MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 42(6), 332-337.

Catherine

The Early Feeding Skills Assessment Tool (EFS) now available

I am pleased to announce that through my collaboration with Suzanne Thoyre, RN, PhD The Early Feeding Skills Assessment Tool (EFS) is now available for download and use with you babies in the NICU and through adjusted age 6 months.

The EFS is a tool to help us:

The EFS has evolved over the years as a wonderful guide to cue-based feeding in the NICU. I especially am proud of it because it looks at feeding from the infant’s perspective and is grounded in physiology. It reflects how I conceptualize feeding in the NICU, which I refer to as “infant-guided”, i.e., a dynamic approach based on contingent co-regulation between infant and caregiver. That maybe a parent/family member, a nurse, or a therapist.

The tool is also based on dynamic systems theory (that multiple systems synergistically affect each other during feeding) and these systems are assessed dynamically throughout an entire feeding, to arrive at a gestalt. Capturing variability across the entire feeding is a critical part of the analysis/integration of information. The items are designed to capture the variability in the infant’s learning of the foundational components of feeding skills, the continuum of that learning, and the emergence of skills; so it assesses  whether component skills are not observed, are emerging, or are indeed consistently expressed. It is often used serially to capture developmental progress in feeding over time.

The EFS leads the caregiver, by the nature of how it is designed, to the interventions that naturally flow from the results of the assessment. It profiles interventions to support adaptive function during feeding and swallowing, and therefore interventions for safety.

The EFS is user friendly in that it is not focused on understanding and identifying only isolated oral-motor components but rather making sense of what all caregivers “see” every day when they feed preterm infants–the infant’s communication/cues during feeding. It provides a common language about feeding terminology (such as what do we mean by an infant is “pacing” himself, or what is “coordinated”, for example) to help all team members, including families, get on the same page, so conversations and report have common meaning. Psychometrics have been completed and published soon.

Join us in Atlanta on August 15-16, 2018 for a live learning event on utilizing the EFS in support of Cue-Based Feeding in the NICU. Stay tuned for details on my website soon!

Use this link to register and download the EFS
http://feedingflock.web.unc.edu

Shaker ASHA Blog: Preparing for the NICU

Do you hope to get a coveted pediatric placement during graduate school or for your clinical fellowship experience? Are you interested in an even more specialized subset of pediatrics? Working as a speech-language pathologist in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) requires many specific skills. These tiny patients and their families are fragile. The family-centered care we provide as SLPs, in support of neuroprotection, communication and safe feeding, create the foundation for a thriving parent-infant relationship.

Read more here: Preparing For Grad School or CF Placement In The NICU: Part One 

Problem Solving: Oxygen with PO in the NICU

This question was posted on my colleague Krisi Brackett’s blog http://pediatricfeedingnews.com/ and I thought my response might be helpful to my readers as well.

Question: My observation, like other therapists, is that many of the micro preemies and/or babies that have had very involved respiratory issues and complex treatment needs because of these issue, often require increased sensory input related to feeding (temperature variance, thickened consistency).  What we have observed is that these babies often benefit from increased FIO2 during feeds despite having adequate O2 levels.  Do you have any thoughts on this matter?  Our primary Neonatologist says that there is no physiological reason that this rational would be helpful.  I believe the extra flow provides the sensory input that these babies often need, especially while learning to feed.

A few thoughts. “Flow ” and Fi02″ are two different parameters. Due to the concern for the potential adverse effects of oxygen (Fi02), many NICU infants in need of increased respiratory support are weaned to 21% Fi02 with flow. That flow can be delivered via NCPAP, HHFNC, and low flow nasal cannulae. The flow rate itself (PEEP or LPM), has been shown to often help prevent pharyngeal collapse and facilitate maintenance of functional residual capacity (FRC). These two parameters to some extent are likely part of the underpinnings for effective feeding, when WOB and respiratory stability permit PO. However, when an infant is requiring significant Fi02 at baseline, one might question his/her readiness for the aerobic demands of feeding. Depending on the “extra flow” you describe (typically that means for example, PEEP or LPM), it may also create possibly an unsafe feeding environment, as what a conclusion of the recent study by Ferrara et al.   See Ferrara, L., et al. “Effect of nasal continuous positive airway pressure on the pharyngeal swallow in neonates.” Journal of Perinatology 37.4 (2017): 398-403. The answers are not fully in but this well-done paper suggests certain flow may clearly be worrisome for infants requiring intensive care.

Regarding thickening feedings in the NICU –  As I travel and teach across the US about feeding preemies, I am consistently finding that thickened feedings are viewed only as the final consideration after position change, further slowing the flow rate and use of increasing strict co-regulated pacing. The potential adverse effects of thickened feedings are many, and require us as to be “clinical scientists”, i.e., carefully weigh the risk-benefit ratio for each preterm infant, and create a unique algorithm for that infant’s plan of care, in collaboration with the NICU team. Each infant’s history, co–morbidities, respiratory history, and current clinical picture and as well as the impact on the infant’s swallowing physiology, must be carefully considered and weighed. We have suck a complex job when it comes to supporting safe and neuroprotective feeding. We lack the research to fully guide us, so in addition to evolving research, I think our critical thinking, living in the “grey zone”(having more questions than answers) and dialogue with the medical team are our current optimal strategies.

I hope this is helpful.

Catherine

 

 

Problem Solving: Rice Cereal does not thicken breastmilk

Question:

I have heard that rice cereal is not good to thicken with breast milk. Do you have  research or articles we could use for a discussion with our neonatologists because they prefer we use it as they do not want commercial thickeners at all. We have discussed gel mix but they do not want us to use it. Any suggestions?

Answer:

The many dieticians I have met have explained it to me as follows. It is the enzymes (such as Amylase, Lipase and Protease). The enzymes in breast milk serve a variety of functions, some of which we do not even know yet. Some enzymes are necessary for the function of the breasts and the production of breast milk, some enzymes help a baby with digestion, and some are essential a child’s development. Amylase is the main polysaccharide-digesting enzyme in MBM and it  digests starch.  So it averts binding of the MBM with rice cereal. Our MDs don’t allow commercial thickeners, either and gel mix is not approved by FDA for preterm in NICU. However some NICUs do.

Doesn’t leave a lot of options so one must look individually with the team at each infant, based on history, whether he can breastfeed (which is typically safer for most preterms unless there is a structural airway problem – and then  breastfeeding  not necessarily more protective). Depending on the etiology of the aspiration, plan will be different. Some infants may have a period of PO feeding formula (which has increased viscosity compared to MBM) or slightly thickened formula with rice cereal – not ideal ever,  but may need to balance multiple factors and utilize as an interim plan related to likelihood of, and timing of,  etiology for bolus mis-direction resolving.

 

Research Corner: Feeding Outcomes After the NICU

Abstract:

Optimal growth and successful feeding in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are difficult to achieve, and data indicate premature infants continue to struggle after discharge. The purpose of this systematic review was to identify growth and feeding outcomes in the NICU published within the last 10 years. Available evidence suggests weight-for-age decreases between birth and discharge from the NICU, and continues to lag behind expectations after discharge. Prevalence rates of breastfeeding differ across countries, with declining rates after discharge from the NICU. Interventions focused on increasing breastfeeding rates are effective. Most healthy preterm infants successfully nipple feed at a gestational age ≥ 36 weeks, but infants may be discharged prior to achieving full oral feeding, or eating with poor coordination. Earlier born preterm infants are later at achieving full oral feedings. After discharge, preterm infants are slower to develop eating skills, parental reports of feeding problems are prevalent, and parents introduce solids to their infants earlier than recommended. This review enhances professionals’ understanding of the difficulties of feeding and growth in preterm born infants that are faced by parents.

 

Ross, E. S., & Browne, J. V. (2013). Feeding outcomes in preterm infants after discharge from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU): A systematic review. Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews, 13(2), 87-93.

 

 

Problem Solving: NICU Feeding Readiness

Question: Our department is rolling out a new oral care protocol.  I am “on the fence” about this and I am worried that this practice may create more harm than good.  However, we have lots of little ones on vents, HFNC and many “gut” babies that will be NPO long term.  Many of these kiddos are at very high risk for infection and I think anything that can be done to prevent infection would be extremely beneficial.  I have been asked to assist in developing the protocol and giving input as to how to go about delivering the colostrum w/o inflicting negative stimuli to oral cavity (this was my hesitation w/ the program).  I am thinking perhaps the program should only include kiddos 30+ weeks as they may be more tolerant of oral stimuli. I thought maybe attempting to find a silicone swab of sorts to deliver colostrum via oral massage to gum ridge/buccal cavity may be appropriate.  Any thoughts?   Thank you!

Answer:
The benefits of mother’s milk (MBM) to the mucosa via tiny trace droplets that may promote purposeful swallows and oral-sensory-motor mapping is being considered by many NICUs as an early approach to supporting readiness for infant-guided feeding in the future and to prime the sensory-motor system along with nuzzling at the breast (kangaroo mother care). There is a very tiny “paintbrush” one of the reps has (sorry I cannot recall which) that can support a very gentle limited offering of MBM to the lips or this could be offered via very gentle well-graded touch.

The key is that this should be offered when infant is at his best respiratory wise (both in terms of respiratory support being required and his WOB and RR), he is actively engaged and maintains physiologic stability, and should be offered using infant-guided principles of interaction. Resting the infant and use of co-regulated pacing to assure that respiratory stability is fostered from moment to moment, are essential to support a neuro-protective experience that promotes both safety and positive learning. Some NICU caregivers may need guidance to view this experience in such a light, as opposed to a “task” that one “must complete as a part of cares.”

We recognize that, in the NICU, “practice” is not the key, but what is, is the experience, and how it is both offered and received by the immature emerging neuronal pathways and oral-sensory-motor system. Practice of course, makes permanent the neuronal pathways that are recruited and mapped; it does not in and of itself create the pathways that underlie function or skill; it can unfortunately lead to maladaptive behavior and stress if done as a task and/or offered in a programmed way. So yes, there is potential for this initiative to do more harm than good.

I would avoid “oral-motor work” designed to focus on jaw work or oral-motor skills per se at this juncture as it would be too invasive and not appropriate. You are describing preterms who are both fragile and still many weeks prior to term. Were they not born too soon, they would be fetuses experiencing motor and oral-motor learning in utero; their oral-motor movement patterns would be evolving in the context of the containment provided by the uterus, with hands on their face and in their mouth (and alternating touching the placenta per research). They would be integrating their structurally-intact aero-digestive system by 17 weeks of life, swallowing several ounces of amniotic fluid each day.

Focus on structuring experiences outside of the uterus that most closely align with the ideal sensory-motor environment and help caregivers embrace the critical impact this intervention can have if offered in a neuro-protective infant-guided way.

I hope this is helpful.




Catherine


Shaker 2017 Publications on Infant-Guided Co-Regulated Feeding in the NICU

I am proud to announce the publication of my two new manuscripts devoted to Infant-Guided Feeding in the NICU. I was invited to contribute regarding the NICU for the 25th anniversary edition of Seminars in Speech and Language, dedicated to Pediatric Feeding and Swallowing. I am humbled to be one author amongst colleagues well-respected in pediatric dysphagia. My goal was to share the science and art that underlies our role as skilled and thoughtful neonatal therapists. A sequel to my previous papers on using the infant’s communication as a guide during feeding and supporting parents in feeding their preterm infant, these contributions are designed to provide the theoretical underpinnings and interventions that are foundational in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Support of an infant guided, co-regulated feeding approach is essential to both neuroprotection and safety for these infants who are entrusted to our care. I hope they inform your practice and extend your critical thinking with our tiniest and most fragile patients.

Below are the citations and abstracts:

Shaker CS. Infant-Guided, Co-Regulated Feeding in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Part I: Theoretical Underpinnings for Neuroprotection and Safety. Semin Speech Lang. 2017 Apr;38(2):96-105. doi: 10.1055/s-0037-1599107. Epub 2017 Mar 21.

Abstract: The rapid progress in medical and technical innovations in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has been accompanied by concern for outcomes of NICU graduates. Although advances in neonatal care have led to significant changes in survival rates of very small and extremely preterm neonates, early feeding difficulties with the transition from tube feeding to oral feeding are prominent and often persist beyond discharge to home. Progress in learning to feed in the NICU and continued growth in feeding skills after the NICU may be closely tied to fostering neuroprotection and safety. The experience of learning to feed in the NICU may predispose preterm neonates to feeding problems that persist. Neonatal feeding as an area of specialized clinical practice has grown considerably in the last decade. This article is the first in a two-part series devoted to neonatal feeding. Part 1 explores factors in NICU feeding experiences that may serve to constrain or promote feeding skill development, not only in the NICU but long after discharge to home. Part II describes approaches to intervention that support neuroprotection and safety.

Shaker CS. Infant-Guided, Co-Regulated Feeding in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Part II: Interventions to Promote Neuroprotection and Safety. Semin Speech Lang. 2017 Apr;38(2):106-115. Epub 2017 Mar 21.

Abstract: Feeding skills of preterm neonates in a neonatal intensive care unit are in an emergent phase of development and require careful support to minimize stress. The underpinnings that influence and enhance both neuroprotection and safety were discussed in Part I. An infant-guided, co-regulated approach to feeding can protect the vulnerable neonate’s neurologic development, support the parent-infant relationship, and prevent feeding problems that may endure. Contingent interventions are used to maintain subsystem stability and enhance self-regulation, development, and coping skills. This co-regulation between caregiver and neonate forms the foundation for a positive infant-guided feeding experience. Caregivers select evidence-based interventions contingent to the newborn’s communication. When these interventions are then titrated from moment to moment, neuroprotection and safety are fostered.

 

Catherine

Problem-Solving: Feeding on CPAP and HFNC

Question: Does anyone know of any research articles on the risk of feeding infants (term and/or preterm) who are on HFNC? Also I would love other people’s perspective of “turning down” an infant’s oxygen for the purpose of feeding. For example, a baby is on 4L due to acute illness but oxygen is decreased to 2.5L to feed.

Answer: There are a handful of pertinent articles which may be accessible via a search. The one I am attaching is the only study to look at the effect of NCPAP under videofluoroscopy, and it was done by Louisa Ferrara and her NICU colleagues in NY. Their preliminary results were so worrisome that the neonatologists stopped the study.

Unfortunately, often the conclusion regarding the “safety” and the “tolerance” of NICU infants feeding on NCPAP is determined by volume and perhaps lack of overt or symptomatic decompensation. This study will hopefully re-direct thinking about the impact of the need for this level of respiratory support on the ability to safely swallow under such conditions. As you will see, the study determined that “Oral feeding while on NCPAP significantly increases the risk of laryngeal penetration and tracheal aspiration events,” and recommended caution when initiating oral feedings on NCPAP. The conclusions, unfortunately, did not focus on changes in swallowing physiology under NCPAP

My experience in the NICU suggests that, even for those infants who do not frankly penetrate or aspirate under NCPAP in the “moment” in radiology, we are likely to see adverse effects on swallowing physiology. That, for me, is the most compelling takeaway from this study. Bonnie Martin-Harris has taught us that neither aspiration nor penetration is sufficient or necessary for a swallowing impairment – meaning that our focus needs to be on physiology, because impaired physiology and its etiology(ies) create the conditions under which bolus mis-direction can or does occur.

It is not uncommon for neonates to evidence changes in swallowing physiology due to respiratory co-morbidities, even when stable on less support or indeed on unassisted room air. With infants requiring NCPAP or HHFNC, that is why our assessment of risk related to PO feeding or not PO feeding must consider many factors beyond level of respiratory support required.

Regarding your question about reducing respiratory support from baseline during PO attempt, this study gives us some information. However, the time on less support was brief, compared to the typical 25-30-minute PO feeding time. Because the aerobic demands of PO feeding typically exacerbate baseline WOB and RR in neonates, the full impact of such a change is unclear. If the infant is requiring a certain level of support, the reduction in respiratory support may – over the course of a true feeding – result in the need for urgent breaths, leading swallowing and breathing to uncouple. No one has studied this. What looks to some NICU caregivers to be a “solution” will have its own attendant sequelae, as do many things in the NICU, unfortunately.

And so, we remain in the “gray zone” as I like to call it, where there are more questions than answers, which is where most NICU therapists live. We must therefore consider theoretical constructs related to neonatal swallowing, continue to search for the evidence, use critical reflective thinking and dialogue with our neonatal colleagues. I hope this is helpful.

Catherine

Developing NICU Competencies

Just a few thoughts. Those developing the NICU competency will benefit from a period of reflective thinking to avoid the tendency to look for something already done or a cookbook, though guidelines can clearly guide and inform our own key learnings and formalized competencies. My dear friend and SLP colleague, Bob Beecher, from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin used to say: “Cookbooks are made for cooking not for eating…use them wisely.”

SLPs mentoring new colleagues can develop very meaningful mentorship plans and identify objective SLP clinical skills for “check off” through careful reflection and application of current literature. This includes drawing from their own mentorship in the past (what worked, what was missing), or if you were not fortunate to have a mentor and came from the ground up alone, like I did in 1985 – what you now know is essential). Consider the current mentorship process in place (and feedback from recent staff mentored). Compile current literature that is essential as a foundation for NICU practice. Throughout the mentoring, it is critical to reflect that being part of an NICU is a journey, not a destination. Both the NICU’s evolution from a medical and technology perspective, as well as our own need to continue learning and growing in this rapidly changing clinical environment, are essential to an NICU practice that thrives and does so with respect and professional integrity.

Focus on providing the mentee with guided participation with and then assessing objectively (while supervised) their competency related to verbalizing and/or demonstrating the underpinnings of NICU practice during both evaluations and treatments. Even today these are rarely discussed in graduate school), and include: neuroprotection, medical co-morbdities and current technologies and their typical impact on feeding/swallowing, developmental progression of the dynamic systems (postural , state, oral-sensory-motor, respiratory, GI) that underlie feeding/swallowing for sick term infants versus preterm infants, guidelines for referral to ST (who, when, why, how to advocate), readiness factors for PO feeding and how SLP can support the progression to PO feeding (as co-morbidities permit), parameters for physiologic stability and indications of decompensation as well as how to avert and/or respond, the components of evaluation and completing a differential utilizing a wide range of data, explaining one’s differential to others (MD versus RN versus the family), instrumental assessment of swallowing physiology (why, when, how, potential intervention strategies and their benefits/risks), documenting to assist the team via your impression and plan versus only checking off boxes, strategies to support safety and their evidence-base (co-regulated pacing, resting, positioning, swaddling, state modulation, nipple selection), infant communication (signs of stress versus stability, signs of disengagement versus engagement), NICU equipment (what, why, application to SLP practice, progression of respiratory support, lines and their risks), team relationships (learning from other team members, bringing the evidence-base, difficult but respectful conversations, controversies due to the emerging evidence-base, supporting families), breastfeeding (physiology and relationship to bottle feeding, how to support as an SLP), common medications and potential impact of PO feeding. I am sure I am leaving something out but this is hopefully a start.

The depth and complexity of our work in the NICU, and the potential for these often fragile infants to decompensate, demand that both mentorship and competency assessment be carefully structured and supported. Our profession and our families deserve no less.

I hope this is helpful.
Catherine

PO Feeding on NCPAP and/or HFNC: The Dilemma

This is a practice dilemma for all NICU SLPs. The pressure to get infants out of the NICU often drives care decisions, especially when it comes to PO feeding.

Many neonatologists incorrectly assume that there is a window within which our preterms must “experience” PO feeding or they will “miss that critical window and never learn”. So, despite co-morbidities and often respiratory needs that are paramount, infants are being asked to feed. That well-intentioned paradigm is based on writings from Gesell back in the 60s that talked about a “critical window” for learning to eat. Those times were different in many ways as was the population being described. Early intervention now in NICUs to support readiness, neonatal care that is neuro-protective and promotes positive overcomes, and recognition of safety issues inherent in the complex task of PO feeding even when weaned from CPAP and HFNC clearly call for reconsideration of that paradigm, which, perhaps to a large part, underlies the thinking that leads to “pushing PO” and orders to PO on CPAP and HFNC. Many of our former preterms do indeed learn to feed orally at later ages, once weaned, and from my experience do so with much less stress and much more safely.

Advocating for safety for these infants is a critical one for SLPs in the NICU and PICU. Current NICU technology has advanced to the point that more infants are surviving and yet many are requiring extended periods of CPAP and HFNC. Many extremely preterm infants in our NICU with CLD at post-term (41 weeks PMA +) remain dependent on CPAP or HFNC. MY NICU team has had good collaborative conversations about the benefits of ST being involved to maintain a positive oral-sensory environment, promoting the oral-sensory-motor components that are the underpinnings for future PO feeding, beginning early to foreshadow for parents the swallowing, breathing and postural skills needed, and helping families also support those components, versus attempting PO feeding when the infant clearly is struggling with respiratory stability. Clearly, medical co-morbidities predispose an infant in the NICU to PO feeding problems. Multiple papers have studied that. Those infants with the greatest respiratory comorbidities, often those born < 28 weeks’ gestation and BW < 1000 grams, are most likely to require CPAP and/or HFNC at those post-menstrual ages when PO feeding is often attempted. Sick newborns may also present similar issues, secondary to their co-morbidities.

If the infant has such respiratory needs that he requires CPAP, or a HFNC, one must ask if PO feeding is really a priority for that infant at that time. The ability to reconfigure the pharynx from a respiratory tract and back to an alimentary tract with precise timing and coordination surrounding each swallow is a concern. When we look objectively in radiology during an instrumental assessment of swallowing physiology, even infants with CLD stable on RA have altered or impaired swallowing physiology as a direct result of their CLD. The bolus mis-direction and resulting aspiration we often observe is typically silent. In the adult population in the most recent information I have seen (Garon et al, 2009 Journal of Neuroscience Nursing) reported that of 2000 adults studied with a variety of co-morbid conditions, including COPD, 54.5% of those who aspirated did so silently. The data I have collected thus far for NICU infants suggests strongly to me that even the data from Arvedson et al in 1994 likely underestimated the tendency for infants to silently aspirate. In addition, her study population was not only less involved from a respiratory perspective back in 1994 than the population we see today, but it also was a population composed of not just infants. The need for an “urgent breath” often can predispose an infant with increased work of breathing to silently mis-direct the bolus into the airway during the swallow. The ability of the infant to close the glottis against the driving force of the respiratory support, while breathing with increased effort or with an increased respiratory rate, which effectively creates air hunger, and yet still maintain glottic closure throughout the duration of the swallow, would likely be precarious. Given the infant’s likelihood of baseline tachypnea and increased WOB, the dynamic adjustments of the airway surrounding the swallow are likely to be disrupted, and create uncoupling of swallowing and breathing. Without objective data on the impact of CPAP or HFNC on swallowing physiology we cannot conclude that feeding under these conditions is “safe”. Indeed, infants for whom we do not necessarily capture aspiration during a dynamic swallow study may indeed show alterations in swallowing physiology that may indeed predispose them to aspiration under “the right conditions” during PO feeding (changes in nipple flow, changes in position, changes in respiratory support for example) so it isn’t even just about aspiration but the potential impact of CPAP and HFNC on swallowing physiology. The fact that the infants “eat” and “are fed” and “transferred volume” does not equate to “safe feeding”.

We must of course consider the physiologic stress likely to occur when the infant experiences “feeding” when they still require NCPAP and or HFNC. It is highly possible the stress of trying to breathe and coordinate a swallow may lay down neural pathways that move the infant away from wanting to eat, by wiring those sensory-motor pathways that lead to current and/or future maladaptive feeding behaviors. We know that studies looking at stress in preterms have shown an association with adverse changes in brain structure on MRIs.

In the NICU seminars I teach, this body of evidence and our dilemma are always part of our problem-solving discussions. I am fortunate after 32 years in the NICU to be part of a team that is looking beyond “getting them to eat” and looking to partner with ST to guide practice while the evidence-base is emerging. NICU SLPs are in a key role to dialogue, problem-solve and focus on safety and neuroprotection as essential part of this practice issue which confronts every neonatal team.

Jim Coyle has said: “There is one rule of thumb: there is no single parameter that qualifies or disqualifies a patient for anything or that confirms or refutes risk in and of itself. It is the combination of parameters that the clinician uses to estimate risk and to form a diagnostic impression and complete a differential. That is what we teach students and trained clinicians should be emphasizing. Grab your water bottle and go for a 2-3-mile run. After 15 minutes when at your aerobic steady state and RR is up, try to take a drink of water and observe what you need to do to orchestrate the whole thing. Yet you are healthy and mature and not recovering from respiratory issues. Very illuminating.”

The dialogue needs to continue and we need measures of oral feeding that go beyond intake, and methods of assessment that capture critical variables, including objective assessment of physiology.

I hope this is helpful.

Catherine